Michael Hayward's Blog

VIFF 2022: "Maigret"

Michael Hayward

Belgian writer George Simenon wrote on an industrial scale, publishing nearly 500 novels over his lifetime. 75 of those novels featured the French police detective Jules Maigret, who is now considered to be one of the most iconic characters in the detective genre. Maigret has appeared in countless films, and in numerous adaptations on radio and TV. In English-language adaptions alone Maigret has been portrayed by Charles Laughton, by Michael Gambon, by Richard Harris, and most recently by Rowan "Mr. Bean" Atkinson. Now, for a complete change of pace, we have in Maigret, Patrice Leconte's latest film, a French actor, the once great Gérard Depardieu, portraying the iconic French detective, in a French film, directed by a French director! Quelle surprise!

Depardieu, considered one of the greatest French actors of his generation, is now well past his storied prime; it feels like years since he's done more than simply go through the motions onscreen. His body, once fit and muscular, has softened considerably. But as you watch him in this role, you can sense, encased within that bulk, the younger Depardieu, enclosed now by a layer of hard-earned fat, a padding accumulated through years—decades, even—of living a life of excess (Depardieu has acquired—earned—the reputation of an oenophile, and a gourmand.) There it is: that familiar, fleshy, battered nose; and the thick fingers, as soft and as white now as boudin blanc, seen when Maigret opens a drawer in the victim's shabby room, to examine the shabby contents. And by the film's end it comes to feel like a stroke of genius, to have cast this version of Depardieu as this incarnation of Maigret.

This Maigret is heavy-set, and stolid. He moves slowly, deliberately, about the screen. He dresses well, in a tailored overcoat, a dark hat, a shirt and tie. At one point we see him notice himself, reflected in the smeared mirror of a rundown café, as he drinks his petit café, fortified with a shot of something clear and no doubt strong. And in that brief, self-appraising glance, you can sense all of Maigret's fatigue.

During a medical examination, he tells his doctor that he sleeps poorly, and is out of breath after running for a bus (I can't picture Depardieu running for a bus, nor Maigret, but no matter). Ordered by his doctor to give up tobacco, Maigret takes to carrying one of his many pipes in his jacket pocket: a form of consolation. Occasionally he pulls it out to sniff at, to fondle. Later: he reprimands a younger colleague who knocks his own pipe against a heel. "Gently! You'll crack the wood."

The film is set in Paris, but this is most definitely not the Paris of Emily and Remy. This is post-war Paris, and the city is devoid of glamour. All of its colour and vitality has been leeched away. The palette is desaturated, a mix of olive greens, muted browns, and various shades of grey. Whatever was once lively about the streets has been replaced with melancholy.

A young woman has been killed, her body left on one of the narrow streets at night, and she appears to have had no family, and no friends. Nobody knows who she is, or was. Maigret’s investigation takes him into the less savoury parts of Paris, along nearly empty streets at night, and into run-down rooms in seedy hotels. He makes his way down narrow hallways lit from above by low-wattage bulbs. He lumbers as he walks, his torso rocking slightly from side to side with each step, his shoulders brushing against the walls, his arms hanging at his sides.

This older, and wearier, Maigret has become something of a philosopher. "You can't help but grow a shell," he remarks to a colleague. "But then one day,working on some banal case, for some reason a detail will touch you. A wallpaper pattern, a teddy bear, a phrase, a look... and all your certainties collapse. You're a child, afraid of the dark again." Later Maigret is talking with a young woman, an actress, who had shared a room with the victim. They are on a movie set, and the subject of detective films comes up. The actress is amused at this conjunction of the fictional and the real. "How do you interrogate your suspects?" she asks. "I don't," Maigret responds. "I listen."

At one point Maigret is in a judge's chambers, watching him feed the fish in his aquarium. Maigret removes his empty pipe from his jacket pocket, absently raising it to his lips as if to take a puff. "No, no, no!" exclaims the judge. "No pipe or cigars here! It's bad for my fish! You know it!" "I do," Maigret replies. "But this is not a pipe." Then: "That's a Belgian joke to cheer us up."

Maigret is a slow-paced, melancholic pleasure, an excellent antidote to those over-frantic thrillers with their endless car chases, and their predictable explosions.

There are three in-theatre screenings of Maigret as part of VIFF 2022, on Friday, September 30, Saturday, October 8 and on Sunday, October 9, at International Village. See here for more information on the film. You can view a trailer for Maigret here.



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