The late, great film director Claude Chabrol was famous for using thriller tropes such as murder, infidelity, and mistaken identities as accessible means of examining unsettling, darkly comic stories of damaged and hypocritical upper-crust French families. The thriller conventions would normally be revealed to be largely beside the point, a way of lifting the veil from a madness that should’ve been recognized all along. Inspector Bellamy, Chabrol’s final film, is even more nakedly disinterested in genre mechanics than usual for the director. The murder mystery that sets the story isn’t a mystery at all, but an open confession that’s heard by the end of the first act. Accustomed to a traditional whodunnit, you may wait for a twist to occur that will justify spending another hour with the story—yet it never does. Inspector Bellamy is stripped of virtually all narrative except for a few bare bones; it’s a confident character study.
The inspector is played by Gérard Depardieu with a commanding leisureliness that perhaps only a legend can get away with; it’s the sort of performance that can prompt viewers to exclaim, usually half-admiringly, that he “wasn’t acting at all.” That sentiment probably isn’t entirely untrue, but the actor quietly holds the film together with his charisma, timing, and consciously overbearing presence. Bellamy is himself a celebrity, an inspector who once wrote a memoir that younger people still quote back to him. Bellamy and his beautiful wife, Françoise (Marie Bunel), are vacationing somewhere outside their usual home of Paris, when a news report of a car running off a cliff captures the locals’ interest (Françoise’s dentist even has theories). Bellamy is naturally pulled out of his uncomfortable retirement to look into the accident, which is revealed to lead to murder and insurance fraud of the most common noir variety. Around this time, Bellamy’s estranged brother, Jacques (Clovis Cornillac), arrives, primarily to flirt with Françoise, drink the household’s booze, and lord various unspoken sins of the past over his sibling.
Fans of the director will assume that Inspector Bellamy will reveal itself to be more interested in the uneasy triangle between Bellamy, Françoise, and Jacques than in the inspector’s ongoing questioning of those involved in the central crime, and they would be correct. The film plays on the sexual tension and jealousy that has driven many Chabrol pictures before it, including the director’s prior, and marvelous, A Girl Cut in Two. Chabrol characteristically refuses to explicitly connect the dots, and so we’re left in as much doubt over what transpired as Bellamy himself. Bellamy and Jacques have a familiar rivalry. Bellamy is the polished, successful brother, while Jacques is the better looking bad boy who seems to catches Françoise’s somewhat begrudging attention. The director has a little cruel fun with Depardieu’s huge physique, which is unavoidably distracting when paired with the petit and carnally enticing Bunel. We wonder if Françoise has come to view sex with Bellamy as merely one of marriage’s banal chores, just as we wonder if Bellamy is seeking the satisfaction Françoise might be denying him elsewhere.
Inspector Bellamy doesn’t have the dark, piercing wit and despair of Chabrol’s better films, and so it’s tempting suspect that the director’s less-is-more approach here is ultimately less. The picture doesn’t add up to much, which is the point, but the revelations here are too tidy and too redundant of prior Chabrol pictures to justify the dwindling narrative. Yet the film is still truthful, masterfully made, and strangely sad. Chabrol’s light touch allows little pangs of casual heartache and existential disappointment to reverberate after the film has properly ended, such as the eloquently direct question that haunts the entire picture—and probably most of the filmmaker’s body of work: “Do you think mankind is improving?”
The darkness of the cramped hotel rooms strikingly contrasts the open, earthy vistas of the cliffs and cemeteries that figure prominently in the plot proceedings. The sound mix isn’t ostentatious (no aspect of a Claude Chabrol picture typically is), but it is precise and subtle, particularly in the details that define the escalating domestic tensions, such as the dropping of a wine bottle or even the creaks of the floor in a cramped kitchen.
The making-of featurette is more interesting than the typical talking-head puff piece that complements virtually every DVD these days, as it appears to afford a refreshingly direct, honest glimpse of two icons working together. Quite a bit of attention is unsurprisingly paid to star Gérard Depardieu, but the attitude is less sentimental and more ambivalent than expected. The star strikes us as the classic icon whose equal parts perfectionist, talent, egomaniac, and needy child. There is a telling moment of Depardieu directing a costar as Chabrol looks on in the background without comment, which then cuts to the director in conference around the corner with the costar, modifying the star’s instructions as needed. We see Depardieu as a feisty legend and Chabrol as the grounded conductor who knows to choose his battles. We see the give-and-take that comes with the director/actor relationship as well as the considerable, if prickly, mutual respect that Chabrol and Depardieu seem to have for one another. This is the only extra besides the trailer, but it’s surprisingly generous.
A good transfer of a masterfully made, if somewhat slight, film.