By Armond White
After Claude Chabrol’s death Sept. 12, 2010, the French New Wave continues to pass into history even though the best films by Nouvelle Vague directors—Chabrol, Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Rivette and others—stay amazingly vital. Chabrol’s final film, Inspector Bellamy, is a good example: Chabrol re-imagines the detective genre in the course of practicing it. Gérard Depardieu plays Inspector Bellamy, whose domestic life with his affectionate wife Françoise (Marie Bunel) is interrupted by a client (Jacques Gamblin) seeking help in a murder case and by Bellamy’s half-brother Jacques (Clovis Cornillac), whose unexpected arrival brings unsettling family demands.
It took a year for Bellamy to open in the U.S. following its premiere in Europe, probably because New Wave movies are no longer hot commercial properties. The nonchalant, almost spontaneous way Bellamy’s life complicates his profession (and vice-versa) challenges the simplistic narratives of current Euro imports. In Bellamy, Chabrol and Depardieu both audaciously reveal their personal approach to the world as opposed to the way films like Carlos, Mesrine and A Prophet—as well as American grindhouse product like Let Me In and The Town—simply concentrate on generic sensationalism.
As the New Wave masters age and their innovations become unfashionable, modern audiences lose connection with the New Wave thrill of rethinking life through the codes of movie narrative. Bellamy’s client’s calls for help have an existential sense that the conscientious inspector cannot avoid. Bellamy sees himself in the client—and in his attraction to the women he meets during his investigation. The film isn’t simply about a case, but about the moral questions of social life, law, marriage, family, sex and privilege.
“Do you think mankind is improving?” Bellamy asks his despairing alcoholic brother. “Did her sexual hunger frighten you?” Bellamy probes his client about a femme fatale. Both questions and answers—posed in Chabrol’s signature style of casual observation—raise the film’s moral inquiry. Bellamy is suffused with humane concern that startlingly enlarges the solid, coherent crime-and-justice plot (co-written by Odile Barski who also co-wrote Techine’s The Girl on the Train). That’s vital art. That’s also Chabrol’s real purpose. Scenes of domestic harmony or friction, flashbacks of criminal activity and human duplicity, have a depth and precision that suggests Chabrol’s masterly summing-up of what he knows about cinema and about human nature. Bellamy’s rivalry with Jacques goes back to the remarkable sibling tension of Chabrol’s 1958 debut Le Beau Serge—Cornillac’s haunted performance even evokes Gerard Blain in that film. Genre is Chabrol’s Maguffin. The New Wave’s favorite icon, Alfred Hitchcock, explained “Maguffin” as: “The thing the hero cares about but the audience doesn’t,” which could also define the difference between profound cinema and trivial, escapist cinema—the stuff Hollywood traditionally emphasizes versus what matters in viewers’ lives. In Bellamy’s various dealings, Chabrol conveys a lyrical sense of the world. (The film is dedicated to “The Two Georges,” saluting the crime novelist Georges Simenon and musician Georges Brassens, whose classic songs articulate several characters’ points of view and even inspire a trial lawyer’s whimsical summation.) All the film’s dramatic tensions get distilled in exchanges that could be either literary apercus or song cues: “You have to forgive the weak. Why? Because they’re weak, that’s how it is,” and “He thought the world was a mess. He was right. Right doesn’t make you happy. No, it’s the opposite.”
It turns out Bellamy was a summing-up for Chabrol after all. Moviemaking this rich is passing from our culture.
Directed by Claude Chabrol
At the IFC Center
Runtime: 110 min.
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