Influential French New Wave director Claude Chabrol died in September. Inspector Bellamy was his final film. It could have been about the mating habits of bonobos and his admirers would still have found heartwarming codas embedded within the film. It’s what we do when we miss someone – “He always liked a good rain; he would’ve chuckled that his heart gave out during a hurricane.” You know, small comforts.
But seriously, Bellamy is a perfect film for Chabrol to go out on. It stars Gérard Depardieu as the famous, semi-retired titular detective. He wheezes going upstairs, but he can’t keep his face out of his beautiful wife’s bosom (Marie Bunel). He wants to enjoy a dinner party with an upscale gay couple; he wants to travel – or at least his wife does. But crime doesn’t stop just because he does, and it doesn’t stop finding him, either.
“I have a soft spot for murderers,” says a lawyer at one point in the film, and the same can be said of Bellamy and Chabrol. There’s been a car accident. The driver, assumed to be one Emile Leullet, is charred to a crisp. Leullet’s insurance company suspects fraud, and when the dead driver is identified as a homeless man, they’re proven right. The actual Leullet is alive and well and sitting in Bellamy’s garden in the hopes that the detective will listen to his story and help get him out of the hole he’s dug for himself. Leullet, going by Noël Gentil, an irony Dylan Thomas would surely appreciate, just wanted to run off with his mistress and do right by his wife by letting her have the insurance money. Or so he says. A large chunk of the film involves Bellamy listening to his story in a tiny motel room with a wearied bemusement that casts him as a port in the storm for everyone else in his life, including Bellamy’s boozehound brother (the electric Clovis Cornillac). The effect lends Bellamy a Chabrol-like detachment: Others are far more ensconced in the mystery – uncomfortably so. They’re not humans in a life-and-death situation; they’re as abstract to Bellamy as the crossword puzzles he glances at occasionally.
Likewise, Chabrol directs at a leisurely pace. He wants to truly get to know these characters – how they peel oranges, what kind of wine they drink and whether they’re the type to keep their word. In the hands of a modern director, these questions would connect to the mystery somehow, but in Chabrol’s world, it’s the asking and answering that matter most. His mystery lies within how people connect with each other; the fact that a murder has taken place is the mundane part.
Chabrol didn’t always have interesting enough performers to make this style tolerable, especially of late. But Depardieu, Cornillac and Jacques Gamblin (as Gentil/Leullet) are interesting performers, and they inhabit Chabrol’s universe as if they were always a part of it.