The death of Claude Chabrol inevitably saddles Inspector Bellamy, the prolific French New Waver’s final feature, with a coda-status heft that the wispy opus cannot possibly shoulder. Paul Bellamy (Gérard Depardieu) is the last of the filmmaker’s ambiguous protagonists, a renowned police inspector whose analytical mind can’t resist drifting toward riddles even during a holiday in Nimes. As if answering his desire for a bit of sleuthing, a mysterious client shows up at the cottage Bellamy’s staying at with his wife, Françoise (Marie Bunel), trampling their garden and dropping hints of psychological anguish. Intrigued, the inspector hears the man’s tale, which involves a decapitated charred corpse, the disappearance of a philandering local businessman, and a death-obsessed vagabond. That all three characters are played by the same actor (Jacques Gamblin, slipping in and out of bogus whiskers) is a reminder of Chabrol’s decades-long affinity for Hitchcockian doubles and façades (murder is at one point described as a Strangers on a Train-style “exchange of favors”), yet such sporadic thematic spice mostly serves to heighten the well-bred dustiness of the narrative, which meanders between Bellamy’s investigation and his own buried family secrets with all the urgency of a crosswords puzzle.
A sardonic humanist in the Balzac mold, Chabrol was always less interested in the mysteries of his plots than in the nets of insinuating relationships that they would invariably open up. Accordingly, the hazy crime at the center of Inspector Bellamy functions primarily as a fractured mirror through which the protagonist ponders his interactions with his wife and his younger, broken-down half-brother, Jacques (Clovis Cornillac). The vehement upstart of Les Cousins and Les Bonnes Femmes would have mined this territory for confrontational studies of human foolishness and desire, while the urbane surgeon of Les Biches and Le Boucher would have taken a scalpel to the crossroads of bourgeois and provincial corruption. Unfortunately, the Chabrol at work here is the cozy craftsman of the previous 10 years, where the occasional gratifying perversity is swamped by somnolent polish and the sense of a missed dinner being the biggest thing at stake.
Merci Pour le Chocolat and The Bridesmaid would have made for more robust swan songs, though Inspector Bellamy does provide the auteur with an affecting final self-portrait in Depardieu’s wry, slightly melancholy sleuth, a man grown plump with age and comfort yet to the end continuing to search and inquire.