The final film of Claude Chabrol's career before his death at 80 in September, Inspector Bellamy, is an intriguing exercise in misdirection, built around the formidable figure of Gerard Depardieu.
Depardieu plays the title character, Paul Bellamy, who is on vacation with his wife, Francoise (Marie Bunel), at their country home in Nimes. Bellamy apparently is one of Paris' more famous cops, though we are never given anything to support that notion, beyond having other characters mention how famous he is. Seemingly he's known for his deductive skills -- as opposed to being some killer rogue cop, famous instead of infamous -- but again that's something we're told, not shown.
The background buzz on the TV as he works on a crossword puzzle and makes a cup of tea is about an insurance executive who has committed some sort of fraud, then faked his own death. But Bellamy, as he and his wife keep reminding people, is on vacation.
Yet he's a magnet for intruders. First is a stranger, who hangs around in the yard of his house, appears at the door and, finally, calls him late one night. Calling himself Noel Gentil (Jacques Gamblin), he eventually lures Bellamy to his hotel room, where he confesses that he's committed a murder.
Second is Bellamy's half-brother, Jacques (Clovis Cornillac), a ne'er-do-well who's temporarily tapped out, apparently not an uncommon situation with him. He moves in with the Bellamys, sponging off them for money, food and the use of their car, even as he snipes at and bickers with Paul.
Bellamy's vacation turns into a busman's holiday, as he uses his encounter with the confessed murderer to unravel a mystery involving the missing insurance executive, the identity of the body used to fake his death and the extramarital entanglements that propelled his misadventure. Bellamy also finds himself uncomfortably reconnecting with his half-brother, who introduces new suspicions into Bellamy's life about his own character and marriage.
Chabrol, however, is up to something different than a simple whodunit with a conventional resolution. Rather, the entire story of the missing insurance fraudster is seemingly a red herring, an excuse to tell a story about Bellamy and his compulsive work ethic, his off-handed destructiveness toward the people in his life and his seeming cluelessness about himself.
Who better to play a delicate bull than Depardieu? In middle age, he is approaching the girth of late-life Brando or Welles; yet he's lost none of his vitality. With his oddly personable nose (the only actors with noses anywhere near as distinctive are Owen Wilson and Adrien Brody) and a smile that can shift casually from amusement to malevolence, he's still got a stirring sensitivity that provides a touching vulnerability to this not-so-gentle giant.
Bunel, as his long-suffering wife, carries an air of mystery about her feelings for her dominant husband: Is it resignation? Affection? Disdain? Tolerance? That keeps the performance from fading into the background. She keeps the audience -- and Bellamy -- off balance.
Off-balance, indeed, was a state in which Chabrol liked to keep his audiences. He's successful one last time with Inspector Bellamy, a perplexing film that never quite reveals itself in the way an audience would like.
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