Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The R.I.P. Train (#1) Claude Chabrol's INSPECTOR BELLAMY

(This is the first of a trio of films I'll be looking at this week by, well, directors who have left us recently; while I did Chabrol already in previous posts, I thought it might be fitting to do one last RIP tribute as this was his last theatrical-completed film.  Other directors in this series will be Irvin Kershner and Mario Monicelli)

Inspector Bellamy is on vacation.  Why shouldn't he be?  He's earned it, being on the force for so many years.  He spends his time resting and doing odd things around the house - that is, trying to distract himself from an odd presence in a thin man who stalks his house and steps on his flowers.  For shame!  Paul Bellamy calls up this man who stopped by to speak to him and leaves a stern message.  This man calls up Bellamy at midnight- such an odd hour but what the hell- to meet with him.  This man, a guy with big, nervous and possibly frightened eyes, names himself Emile Leullet, and he thinks he may have killed someone.  Thinks being the operative word as he's not quite sure.  Bellamy, not having a lot better to do, takes on the case informally, interviewing his girlfriend, and other people like a dance instructor who might know what's going on.

As it turns out Leullet is not just one guy, he's two, or three.  Claude Chabrol does a playful Hitchcok trick (Hitchcock and Chabrol, no way) where Leulett is played by the same actor, Jacques Gamblin, and also appears as Noel Gentil, a businessman, and a homeless guy, who may be the one that Leulett killed.  Whether he did or didn't is a guessing game Chabrol toys with and curiously keeps his main character equally engaged and annoyed by.  Would he rather focus on this case while on holiday when his (to him and maybe to us) sexy wife is at home?  But then again, what about his brother, Francoise?

The brother part of the story, or who might be a step-brother, is what adds the interesting dimension to Inspector Bellamy.  With just the crime-plot in the story it might just be a fun but diverting and inconsequential little thriller that is so much a slow-burner that Andy Warhol might have filmed the candle.  But it's the introduction, relatively early on in the story, of this brother that suddenly makes the film matter more than it did before.  Or, rather, it becomes a more interesting film the more one thinks about the duality of the situation.  Bellamy is caught in the middle of two men who are just there: his brother Francoise, a louse and a drunk and usually a pretty miserable guy who is 'in-between' jobs and is amusing 20% of the time and the other 80 percent Paul can't help but want to smash his face in.  And then there's Leulett, or Noel or Denis Leprince or whoever he is.  Did he kill this person?  Does it matter?  Maybe Paul, as he even notes, has a liking for murderers, or just their style.

Chabrol is in no rush with his story, which takes some detours here and there with dinner talk and trips to the hardware store and conversations with a female employee who is young enough to be Paul's daughter.  This is just fine if you can get into the rhythm he's telling.  For some (like a gentleman sitting next to me in the theater and insane to me due to the $13 ticket price) it might be sleep-inducing.  But Chabrol does have more on his mind here than the usual police procedural or provincial murder mystery with twists in the story and the 'show-don't-tell' aspects where we see Leulett in "action".  Those scenes, and seeing Depardieu in this role, is fun.  It's when we get this personal dimension, of this brother who for all rights should be like a bad case of fleas and yet has some kind of sympathy to him, that the film takes on another light.

Chabrol is neither over the top nor too subtle.  When he has a scene like when Paul has a moment of unlikely jealousy thinking that perhaps his wife has slept with his brother, it's presented in a straightforward dramatic style- probably just one shot in the bedroom for the confrontation- and in the resolution it's kind of peaceful.  Again, this duality for Paul, of a man in his life who is very frank and dangerous in his honesty, and the other who is a total fake and possibly proud of it (though he does snap back to reality when he hears of his girlfriend sleeping with another Inspector!), is what counts.  I liked seeing how Depardieu made his character smarter than others around him, but humble and with some humility to him.  He's not a Sherlock Holmes, he's just a guy trying to put together a book-shelf and have some sex with his wife, what's wrong with that.  That the actor playing his brother as well (I forget his name at the moment) is as good, if two-dimensional, in his role brings out the best out of the film's star.

This was the director's 50th film, and it feels every bit like a Chabrol film, all the way down to its sad climax (and what a wonderful quote to end a movie, and unintentionally a career: "... there is always another story, there is more than meets the eye."), and his very reasonable and/or crazy cast of characters.  It's a story without frills, as one would hope an old man would make, though perhaps a bit too long in some spots (there was a moment I thought the story would naturally end, and it didn't, though it ended up in a special place), and the camera and editing are loose and relaxed.  

This doesn't mean Inspector Bellamy is meant to be too slow, or not-involve its viewers.  It's the quiet work of a master confident completely in what he's doing, be it a flash to a dance scene drowning in darkness and slivers of light, or having fun with little surprises.  One such one, as a final note, is when the Leullet character is on trial, and his attorney breaks out into song (he's the only one, no music, just his voice) to explain his defense.  I've never seen that in a movie.  Glad there's one more curve-ball to throw, and a hilarious one at that.

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