2 March 2009 | Chris Knipp
Up to his old tricks with the help of Gerard and a nod to the two Georges
Chabrol is 78, and this is his 57th film. He's in fine form here, though this hasn't quite got the delirious malice or the cloying bourgeois atmosphere of his most potent works. The closing dedication is to "the two Georges." They are Georges Brassens, the French singer-songwriter, and Georges Simenon, the prolific Belgian-born maker of novels hard and soft and the creator of the inimitable Commissioner Maigret. This is the first time Chabrol and Gérard Depardieu have worked together. For the occasion, Chabrol has conceived a lead character who's half Maigret, half Depardieu. And he has based his crime plot on a news item. The ingredients blend well and the result is guaranteed to entertain.
There is an actual Maigret novel in which the Paris detective goes on vacation with his wife, but then becomes involved in a case. ('Les Vacances de Maigret'--and it was made into a film!) It's a foregone conclusion that Maigret, and Chabrol's Commissioner Paul Bellamyworki (Depardieu) is no different, is happiest when he's solving a murder mystery. Bellamy spends every summer with his wife Françoise (Marie Bunel) in the region of Nimes, in the south of France, where she maintains a cozy bourgeois family house. She would prefer they join a cruise on the Nile, where Bellamy would be less able to get his nose into French crime, but here they are. And as the film begins and Maigret, I mean Bellamy, is doing a crossword and Françoise is planning dinner and shopping, a suspicious-looking lean sort of fellow called Noël Gentil (Jacques Gamblin) is hovering around in the garden just outside the picture window, and finally gets up his courage and raps on the front door. Bellamy has written a well known memoir and like Maigret is so famous people seek him out.
Mme. Bellamy turns the man away, but there's a phone call, and Bellamy goes to a motel room, and he finds this chap interesting because people interest him. Gentil turns out to have several aliases, and even faces, because he's sought the help of a plastic surgeon. He shows the photo of a man who looks rather like himself and says he "sort of killed him." He declares himself to be in a terrible mess. There are several women, a wife (Marie Matheron) and a beautiful young woman who has a beauty shop (Vahina Giocante) in the town. And, as in the Simenon novel, there is a local police inspector, a certain Leblanc, whom Bellamy doesn't respect, and assiduously avoids, and Chabrol never shows us on screen.
M. Gentil turns out to be a suspect involved in a double life and a devious crime. But he is seeking the Commissioner's help--on a private basis. It has to do with an insurance scam that went awry.
Chabrol is also involved in a double process, because the film takes a complicated family turn with the arrival of Bellamy's ne'er-do-well half-brother Jacques Lebas (Clovis Cornillac), who gambles, drinks too much, and has a habit of going off with things that don't belong to him. Cornillac wears this character's skin so comfortably he never seems to be acting, and with a part like this, that's a neat trick, and he makes Jacques somehow elegant as well.
Part of the charm of this easy-to-watch if unchallenging film is the warm relationship between Françoise and Bellamy, which is romantic and affectionate and physical and cozy all at once. Bunel and Depardieu (who is very large now, a benignly beached whale in a good suit) play very well together. There is a dinner with a gay dentist (Yves Verhoeven) and his partner, which Jacques horns in on; this isn't terribly interesting. Nor is the case extremely resonant. The most memorable moments are those between Bellamy and his wife and his love-hate squabbling with the unpredictable half-brother, which are enhanced by the bright colors and warmth of the southern French setting. There is a young lawyer who shines in court, and lines from a Georges Brassens song are used in a surprising way. Fans of Chabrol and of Depardieu (and the two Georges!) won't want to miss this.
Bellamy opened in Paris February 25, 2009 to decent reviews. Given its north American premiere at the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center in March 2009, this seems sure to get a US distributor, but none has been announced yet.