Prolific French filmmaker bows out gracefully

By Drew Hunt

Although it won’t rank among the more exemplary achievements of his dauntingly vast filmography, Claude Chabrol’s final film, “Inspector Bellamy,” is an exhilarating swan song for the venerable director. It’s a satisfying finale in a career that spanned nearly five decades.

In the film, the title character Paul Bellamy (Gérard Depardieu) is a distinguished Parisian detective who is semi-retired, living in a country cottage with his wife (Marie Bunel). Bellamy soon finds himself caught up in a murder mystery equal parts absurd and compelling. The revered inspector is fully aware of the culprit’s identity and commandeers the case to avoid dealing with certain pressing familial issues involving his hapless brother.

Sure to be one of the more unconventional crime thrillers to grace the screen this year, Chabrol’s film is somewhat pithy in tone. Not unlike his French New Wave cohort Jacques Rivette—whose latest film, “36 Views from the Pic Saint-Loup,” is a meager 84 minutes long while the rest of his films average 158 minutes (excluding a 12-hour epic) in length—Chabrol seemed to have scaled down his projects at his career’s end.

Like his idol Alfred Hitchcock, Chabrol’s films are infused with a kind of ambiguity. His characters are seemingly decent human beings yet have something they conceal from others. Also like Hitchcock, Chabrol builds suspense through a pitiless yet stylish visual authority—he was particularly gifted in his use of space and framing. “Inspector Bellamy,” however, is a far less commanding work than the director’s films from earlier decades. This lack of vigor can be somewhat discouraging considering Chabrol’s formal capabilities.

However, it’s easy to forgive the film and its shortcomings once the realization of not only his age (he was pushing 80 upon the film’s completion), but also the quality of his work to date sets in. Moreover, despite “Inspector Bellamy” being relegated to a seemingly simple character study, the film still bears the trademarks of his previous work.

The clearest example of this is the manner in which Bellamy handles the case. The character’s modus operandi, as it were, bears striking resemblance to a number of themes Chabrol explored throughout his career. Perhaps his most Hitchcockian aspect is an examination of the relationship between guilt and the individual and the need to transfer that guilt to someone else.

Such is the case with Bellamy’s mystery man—a crooked insurance agent who fakes his death by rolling his car off a cliff using an unwitting vagrant and justifies the despicable act by claiming the vagrant wanted to die. As Bellamy tells his wife, it’s the case of “a guy who wants to kill a guy who wants to die.”

Accordingly, the dramatic tension rises as Bellamy’s relationship with the killer becomes increasingly more complicated and begins to bear strange resemblance to his own sordid past.

Yet this is Chabrol’s true aim. The film ends with a quote from the poet W.H. Auden: “There is always more to the story—there is more than meets the eye.” Given the duplicity seen in Bellamy, the film is ultimately a fine summation of Chabrol’s career.