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Inspector Bellamy
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by Jay Seaver

"Chabrol + Depardieu = Delight"
5 stars

The opening scene of Claude Chabrol's final theatrical film gives a hint to why he was often compared to Alfred Hitchcock, though with a French sensibility: His camera threads its way through a graveyard until it finds a corpse that is not there to be interred: It's burnt to a crisp, still in a sitting position, and clutching a steering wheel like nothing terrible has happened. The head is on the ground next to it. For all the gruesomeness of the image, it's a jaunty, whimsical moment, the sort of black comedy that was Hitch's trademark.

From there, things become rather more French. We see a man, Noel Gentil (Jacques Gamblin), lurking around the Nimes vacation home of Paul Bellamy (Gerard Depardieu). Paul's wife, Françoise (Marie Bunel), sends him away, but Paul, a Paris detective of some renown, cannot resist a mystery, especially when the alternative is spending time with half-brother Jacques Lebas (Clovis Cornillac). It turns out that Gentil is really Emile Leullet, the owner of the car, and with his insurance fraud discovered, he wants Bellamy to help him and his lover Nadia (Vahina Giocante) to find a way out of what he claims is not cold-blooded murder.

The story sounds ridiculous when described like that, and I suspect that there is no way to describe it where it would sound otherwise. Bellamy spends a good deal of time ferreting out information that should have been given to him up front, while the final pieces fall into place from somewhat conveniently. To the extent that Bellamy is a murder mystery, it is about determining degrees of culpability. Though Bellamy is not on official police business, he is still engaging in one of a detective's most important duties - trying to determine what a suspect is capable of, at that crucial moment, when there's no definitive evidence. Indeed, not being on official business is why Bellamy is able to spend so much time giving this thought.

It's an intriguing question, though one which might make for a slow movie by itself. So, Chabrol and co-writer Odile Barski also involve Bellamy in more domestic issues - Françoise would like to take a cruise with some friends, but Paul is reluctant, and there is a long, contentious history with Jacques. There is the obvious comparison - while Paul is a famous detective, Jacques has been a small-time crook, and Paul has never interceded on Jacques's behalf. There are hints of a past relationship between Jacques and Françoise, and while Jacques appears to be a perpetually angry drunk, we are shown early on that Paul has sworn alcohol off - although having Jacques in the house will drive him to drink out of familiarity and frustration. It's an enjoyable country-house drama to watch, as the love and affection shared by Paul and Françoise contrasts with the often overt hostility between the brothers. These are not buried or repressed feelings, and there's a lived-in feeling to these long relationships: Paul knows Jacques can and will push every one of his buttons, and that his and Françoise's love is true, but the web of deceit and loyalties in Leullet's case make him see similar situations in his own.

Depardieu is the one who has his foot in both sides of the story, of course, and he and Chabrol make Bellamy feel like he's a character we've been following for years. They may get some help in that; one of the "Two Georges" thanked in the closing credits is undoubtedly mystery novelist George Simenon, and there's more than a dash of Inspector Maigret in Bellamy - at one point, a character mentions that Bellamy mentioned being sympathetic to murderers in his memoirs, the complement to Maigret's tenet that the victim was always a little bit guilty. When we first see Paul, he's solving a crossword puzzle - even before a murder pops up, he must keep his mind occupied! - and Depardieu keeps an echo that scene's curious expression on his face for much of the film. He's a pleasant, likable creature - Depardieu's bulk and height is used to give Paul stature as opposed to making him imposing. Even when he's angry or jealous, his rage is muted; this is a man who has learned self-control.

Clovis Cornillac's Jacques has not, of course. Though playing half-brothers, they are opposites physically, with Cornillac compact and hard wherever Depardieu is large and cuddly. There's an alcoholic slur to his words that even those who don't speak French can recognize, and though he spends much of his time angry or jealous, there's a layer of warmth that appears when he's in a scene with Bunel, and even occasionally with Depardieu. Bunel herself is also a delight, displaying wonderful chemistry with Depardieu; like Paul, Françoise seems like someone we've known for years. The smaller roles are ably filled as well, with Yves Verhoven and Bruno Abraham-Kremer providing good comic relief (and grounding) as Françoise's dentist and his boyfriend, while both Jacques Gamblin and Vahina Giocante are nicely enigmatic as the suspects.

"Inspector Bellamy" is not the perfect capstone to a long and legendary career, but it's certainly a fine example of what Chabrol has done over the past half-century - a nifty mystery told in an unconventional but charming way.

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originally posted: 12/01/10 13:14:28
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 25-Jan-2011


  DVD: 25-Jan-2011

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