“The good news from Bellamy is that Depardieu gives one of his best performances in years.”
“Behind the corpse in the reservoir, behind the ghost on the links,
Behind the lady who dances and the man who madly drinks,
Under the look of fatigue, the attack of migraine and the sigh
There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.”
— W. H. Auden, from Song VIII of Twelve Songs
Last year, 2009, saw a number of commemorations of the French New Wave, with May 4 being marked as the anniversary date, fifty years to the day since François Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and went on to win the Best Director’s prize. As Antoine de Baecque says in the recent coffee-table reissue of his book on the New Wave,1 this May 4 date marked the public birth of that movement, even if it was another of the Cahiers gang of critics-turned-filmmakers, Claude Chabrol, who got there first. Chabrol used his wife’s inheritance to shoot Le Beau Serge in 1958 and then released that film and its follow-up Les Cousins in early 1959 prior to The Four Hundred Blows‘ Cannes premiere. It was only the way that Chabrol’s career fell off the rails in the early sixties that led him for a time to being eclipsed by his other Cahiers colleagues.
Chabrol has always remained truest to his roots, to the critical project that he undertook at Cahiers of parsing meaning and value from directors working within mainstream commercial cinema and within genre, specifically the crime genre. (This produced the first serious book-length study of Hitchcock, co-written with Eric Rohmer.2) Probably his most famous contribution to Cahiers — certainly it’s the one that has the greatest bearing on his own filmmaking career — is his short 1959 essay “Les petits sujets.”3 Variously translated into English as “Little Subjects” or “Little Themes,” the essay first sets up, with typically Chabrolian sardonic humour, the almost ludicrous contrast between one movie on “The Apocalypse of Our Time” and another on “The Quarrel Between Our Neighbours,” before concluding that there is very little difference between the two structurally, and yet at the same time the smaller-themed movie offers the greater possibilities in its more detailed focus on a specific, lived reality and its potential for richer formal explorations.
The great bulk of Chabrol’s films, and certainly his most successful ones, have maintained this focus on a very specific locale — Trémolat in the Dordogne in Le Boucher (1969), Versailles and Lyons in Betty (1992), Lyons again in A Girl Cut in Two (2007), and so on — working within the self-imposed limitations of the crime-mystery genre. In fact, some of Chabrol’s worst films have often been when he’s tempted by the big themes of literary adaptation, whether it’s Simone de Beauvoir (1984’s The Blood of Others), Henry Miller (1990’s Quiet Days in Clichy), or Flaubert (1991’s Madame Bovary). At the same time, it’s important not to overplay the influence on Chabrol of Hitchcock in particular and American genre cinema in general. That cinema was important for Chabrol in his work as a critic at Cahiers, but as a filmmaker he’s never been particularly interested in the thrills and suspense of American crime and mystery films. In Chabrol’s work the crime/mystery elements are a framework for the filmmaker to explore interests far more characteristic of French art cinema: character, psychology, and social class. In this respect Chabrol’s films now seem to have more in common with — but, incidentally, are also superior to — someone like Henri-Georges Clouzot and the likes of Le Corbeau (1943), Quai des Orfèvres (1947), and Les Diaboliques (1957).4
The way Chabrol has consistently worked within commercial French genre cinema has set him apart from his Cahiers and Left Bank (Varda, Resnais) contemporaries. It’s also meant that he has suffered more from the vagaries of commercial success: his career went seriously awry in the early to mid-sixties, and even after his return to strength with the Hélène cycle (which included the critically acclaimed La Femme Infidèle, 1968, and Le Boucher), his seventies work veered wildly in quality from the heights of Violette Nozière (1978) to the depths of too many weak and indifferent efforts like Dr. Popaul (1972) or Folies Bourgeoises (1976). Perhaps not coincidentally for a few years after Violette Nozière most of his work was done in television. Fortunately, just as producer André Génovès did in the sixties (he was behind all Chabrol’s films between 1967 and 1975), MK2’s Marin Karmitz did the same when he effectively relaunched Chabrol’s career by producing Poulet au Binaigre (1985). Since then, Chabrol has produced a body of almost5 consistently superior work, but work whose value — with the exception of an outright masterpiece like La Cérémonie (1995) — is often in danger of being overlooked. Chabrol is one of those directors, like the Eric Rohmer of the Comédies et Proverbes or Hong Sang-soo and his brilliant regular reports on the sexual/emotional bad faith of the Korean male, where each new film acts as the latest instalment of an ongoing project. The pleasure comes from observing, based on an awareness of what has gone before, the variations that are played out in the current film to hand.
Chabrol’s prolific output has meant that on occasion he has allowed himself to relax a little, to indulge himself and bring to the fore the sly humour that is always part of the Chabrol world-view. Rien ne Va Plus (1997) was a good case in point, bracketed as it was by far more serious films on either side. And Chabrol’s latest film, and his fifty-fourth, Bellamy (2009), also offers on the surface a far lighter tone than the sombre implications of the preceding films The Girl Cut in Two and The Comedy of Power (2006). Still, probably Bellamy‘s most striking distinction is that it marks the first time that Chabrol has worked with Gérard Depardieu. In the seventies and eighties Depardieu was a towering figure, the one actor, with his seductive balance of animal physicality and inner grace, who epitomised French cinema of the day, but his work has sadly declined with age, offering uninspired if not lazy performances in mostly negligible films (think 36 Quai des Orfèvres, 2004, La Vie en Rose, 2007, or the Astérix franchise). The good news from Bellamy is that Depardieu gives one of his best performances in years, commanding the screen even when he’s doing little more, as in the film’s very first scene, than sitting in his chair filling in the newspaper crossword.
Bellamy closes with a dedication to “the two Georges.” One of them, singer-songwriter Georges Brassens, is explicitly referenced in the film itself: the film opens at the seaside cemetery in Sète where Brassens is buried; there’s an early encounter with a Brassens-singing shop assistant; the homeless bum at the centre of a murder plot wants to visit Brassens’ grave; and a Brassens song is put to comic use to resolve one of the threads of the plot.
The other “Georges,” while never named at any point in the film, is the one that inevitably springs to mind when dealing with a French murder-mystery: that of Georges Simenon. Les Fantômes du Dhapelier (1982) and Betty were adapted by Chabrol from two of Simenon’s non-detective psychological novels, but with Bellamy Chabrol takes the opportunity to tackle, in everything but name, Simenon’s most famous creation, Inspector Maigret. Depardieu’s character, Inspector Paul Bellamy, is a close fit to Maigret’s, from the firm grounding of his married life through to his reliance on instinct and gentle but probing conversations to resolve the mystery at hand.
As the film opens, Bellamy and his wife Françoise (Marie Bunel) are on holiday in her house in Nîmes (in the south of France, not far from Brassens’ birthplace at Sète), a compromise vacation in place of the Nile cruise Françoise has been vainly trying to talk her stay-at-home husband into taking. The relationship between Bellamy and Françoise is a wonderful portrayal of a committed middle-age marriage, firmly based on both companionship and an active sex life. Chabrol’s sly joke throughout Bellamy is to have Françoise constantly, playfully frustrate her husband in delaying and putting off consummation of the sexual interest she’s provoked in him. This is not meant to point to any hidden problems within their marriage (as a symbol of Bellamy’s impotence, for example6 ) — although it clearly fuels Bellamy’s jealousy when his younger ne’er-do-well half-brother Jacques Lebas (Clovis Cornillac) turns up — but it’s rather a sign of the little teasing games that a husband and wife, comfortable with one another, can play. In any case, their mutual interdependence is nicely symbolised when Françoise saves Bellamy from falling in an open drain when they’re out walking in town.
On the surface there seems not much of a mystery to the case that Bellamy, like so many a retired or vacationing detective in classic mystery fiction, takes on to divert himself from the incipient boredom of life away from his investigative work. We’re already given the outlines of the case, relayed in local gossip from their dentist friend: a local insurance agent, Emile Leullet, is being sought by the police after trying to fake his death using the body of a homeless man. So, when Bellamy finally gets to meet the stranger who was trying to solicit his help in the opening scene, turned away by Françoise and then returning to trample Bellamy’s flower garden in the process, the connections are soon obvious. This man, Noël Gentil (Jacques Gamblin), gives Bellamy a photo of a man he claims to have killed in a plot to leave his wife and live with his mistress.
Bellamy never really believes the details of Gentil’s story, Françoise notices the similarity between Gentil and his supposed victim, and when Bellamy visits Gentil’s wife, he finds himself talking to Madame Leullet (Marie Matheron), wife of the absconded insurance agent. The details of the affair — the selection of a homeless man with, coincidentally, a death wish; Leullet’s subsequent plastic surgery to make himself resemble his victim — are all teased out through a series of gently-paced conversations with Gentil/Leullet himself and with a series of attractive women: Madame Leullet, Bellamy’s own wife, and Leullet’s young mistress Nadia Sancho (Vahina Giocante), who soon takes up with the local Nîmes detective (never seen by us and despised by Bellamy) investigating the case. Even the attractive Brassens-fan Bellamy is served by in the hardware store proves to have a connection with the case: Claire Bonheur (Adrienne Pauly) was a friend of the homeless man Denis Leprince, and she turns up at the end of the case with a lawyer friend to defend Leullet — which is accomplished, following Bellamy’s advice, by singing a Brassens song in court.
Intertwined with Bellamy‘s main plot thread of the Leullet/Gentil case is the subsidiary one of Bellamy’s fraught relationship with his younger half-brother. Jacques is the polar opposite to Bellamy: unemployed, unshaven, a gambler, a thief, and a drunkard. It seems that Bellamy’s own gentle exploration of the Leullet case, the slow-paced visits to one character and then another, are a way to avoid having to deal with his unwelcome house guest (Françoise is quite critical of Bellamy’s treatment of his brother). The two plot threads are set in parallel right from the first scene when Françoise’s announcement of Noël Gentil’s would-be visit is answered by his news of the visit Jacques is forcing on them.
Sometimes the parallels reflect back on each other on a thematic level, or allow themselves to expand within Bellamy’s own consciousness. So, after Bellamy has informed Leullet of his mistress’s infidelity, he returns home to be confronted by a scene that could be read as Françoise’s own betrayal of him. Coming up the stairs, he catches a shirtless Jacques and Françoise emerging from the bedroom. It’s an ambiguous scene that adds to the unease Bellamy has felt from earlier scenes, of finding Jacques and Françoise playing cards together but seated next to rather than opposite one another (Chabrol adds a provocative close-up of Jacques’ undone belt) and of overhearing Jacques excessively complimenting his wife.
But the correct interpretation of these scenes is never clear in Bellamy’s mind, and that uncertainty then feeds into the dissatisfaction he feels at the conclusion of the case, the nagging sense that he’s somehow been had. Certainly the film’s closing quote from Auden (whose French reads literally as “Behind every story there is another story. There is always more than what the eye can see”) underlines Bellamy’s uncertainties about the case and the questions that still lie unanswered, about Madame Leullet’s sudden death, and about which of the two men, Gentil or Leprince, actually died in the car crash at Sète.
Yet that quote is even more pertinent to the story of Bellamy and Jacques. Jacques has already taken off in Bellamy’s Mercedes, and Bellamy tells Françoise of a time when he almost killed his brother out of jealousy and resentment. When he’s informed by Françoise the next morning of Jacques’ death in a car crash, we’re reminded of an earlier statement by Bellamy. He’d described Leullet’s plot as “the story of a guy who wants to kill a guy who wants to die,” and suddenly that seems to apply to Bellamy and Jacques even more. Like Bellamy, we’ve been looking in the wrong direction, in a sense seduced by the genre itself, focusing on the straightforward crime story and missing the deeper story underneath. And like Bellamy, we have, so to speak, to rewind the plot and to tease out what was the real story of Bellamy, the one that passed us by.
- Replete with great illustrations: Antoine de Baecque, La Nouvelle Vague: Portrait d’une Jeunesse, Paris: Flammarion, 2009, p. 64. [↩]
- Published in French as Hitchcock in 1957, and available in English as: Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films, New York: Continuum, 1988. [↩]
- It appeared in: Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 100, Oct. 1959, 39-41. [↩]
- Clouzot’s unfinished L’Enfer (1964) was even remade by Chabrol in 1994. [↩]
- I’ll concede that Dr M (1990), Quiet Days in Clichy (1990), and Madame Bovary (1991) don’t measure up. [↩]
- Which Chabrol and his co-scriptwriter Odile Barski both explicitly deny in an excellent interview in Cahiers du Cinéma, Depardieu, and, briefly, Marie Bunel: Emmanuel Burdeau & Eugenio Renzi, “Les Bretelles de l’Homme Nu,” Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 643, Mar. 2009, p. 11. [↩]