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Power suit

Chabrol’s latest; Paul Robeson at the MFA
By GERALD PEARY  |  February 14, 2007

L’IVRESSE DU POUVOIR: Competent, complacent Chabrol.

Claude Chabrol initiated the French New Wave with Le beau Serge (1958) and Les cousins (1959), and for a decade after his work was as shiny as anyone’s, with such sardonic, Hitchcock-flavored thrillers as La femme infidèle (1969), Que la bête meure|This Man Must Die (1969), and Le boucher (1971). Since, he’s been tremendously prolific and extremely erratic. His 2004 crime melodrama L’ivresse du pouvoir|The Comedy of Power (opening this Friday at the Kendall Square) is a typical endeavor of the last 35 years. There’s clever acting and some ironic dark humor aimed at the privileged, but it’s a complacent effort sliding by on his reserve of charm and professionalism.

Isabelle Huppert is a Paris judge obsessed with bringing down a cartel of smug, crooked businessmen with influence in high government places. As usual, the Huppert persona is smart and efficient but cold as ice, alienating her husband, who wants his wife around, not to mention a little loving. You’ve seen this story before: it could easily be an American TV movie. The two hours pass efficiently, Huppert confronting one oily CEO after another, but with little directorial inspiration.

It’s a curious thing: Chabrol has been perfectly happy churning out fairly mediocre works. I’ve heard stories that the filmmaker, a famous epicure, chooses a project so he can shoot where the food and drink is special. Director Bertrand Tavernier told me the following tale. Before making movies, he was a PR agent, and he worked on a Chabrol comedy. He recalled being on the set one day and Chabrol urging him over. “Look at the actors in this scene,” Chabrol whispered to him, delightedly. “Aren’t they terrible?” Chabrol was having great fun making a bad movie!

The 1933 Hollywood adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s drama The Emperor Jones (this Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts) is notable for being Paul Robeson’s screen debut, as he reprised his stage role of the Pullman porter turned despotic Caribbean ruler. It’s also the first studio film ever with a black lead and white actors in subordinate roles. Besides the excitement of the legendary Robeson, the great baritone who became an influential left-wing activist, the pleasures of this movie are fleeting: some fine singing in a black Southern church; a lively, raucous scene in a Harlem nightclub; Robeson himself bursting into songs, especially his awesome “John Henry.”

What’s academically interesting is how O’Neill’s play, all of which takes place on the island, has been reconfigured with a pre-island half-hour that tells the same story as a host of Hollywood all-black musicals including Hallelujah! (1929), Cabin in the Sky (1943), and Carmen Jones (1954). A young black man with a devoted, Christian-thinking girlfriend or wife is pulled off track by citified wild black women and his own notion that there’s more to life than the sleepy, circumscribed agrarian existence. In the movie version of The Emperor Jones, young Brutus Jones (his name prior to becoming self-appointed royalty) travels from the rural South to Harlem, where he gambles, hooks up with hot-blooded vixens, and kills a man in a fight. He swims out to the Caribbean only after escaping from a chain gang. All this is back story in the O’Neill drama.

The MFA screening of The Emperor Jones is actually a tribute to the white filmmaker, Dudley Murphy, the subject of a new biography, Dudley Murphy: Hollywood Wild Card. The author of the book, Susan Delson, will speak and make a case for Murphy as an unheralded cinéaste who came out of the avant-garde. I’d have to be convinced of his merits: his direction of The Emperor Jones is dull, flat, dead.

Related: Cherchez les femmes, Interview: Ludivine Sagnier, A Girl Cut in Two, More more >
  Topics: Film Culture , Entertainment, Music, Pop and Rock Music,  More more >
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