Georges Simenon’s fictional detective Jules Maigret featured in 75 novels and a handful of short stories, and since 1932 has been a mainstay of cinema and television in both France and the United Kingdom. Over the years the character has been played by Pierre Renoir, Charles Laughton, Albert Préjean, Jean Richard, Michael Gambon, Rowan Atkinson, and others. Adaptations have also been staged in Japan, Russia, and Italy. Now legendary French actor Gérard Depardieu assumes the part in Maigret, a feature adaptation of the 1954 novel Maigret and the Dead Girl. Directed by Patrice Leconte, the film is currently screening across Australia as part of the Alliance Française’s 2022 French Film Festival.
The body of a poor young woman in an expensive dress is found dead, savagely stabbed five times. While tracking down her killer, Inspector Maigret (Depardieu) becomes personally invested in solving the crime.
Patrice Leconte has developed a quite striking and relatively unique take. Audiences expecting an old-fashioned ‘whodunnit’ packed with suspects, alibis, and red herrings may leave the film disappointed. There is no real mystery to speak of here; less of a ‘whodunnit’ and more of a ‘whydunnit’, picking apart details in the margins without ever really ratcheting up any suspense. Instead Leconte focuses on character and atmosphere, creating a distinctive take out of extremely well-worn territory. This is a Maigret of deep melancholy and unspoken regret. It begins in a doctor’s office, with an ageing Maigret warned off smoking his pipe and sent for a chest x-ray. It ends with him sorrowfully walking alone down a road, fading into invisibility. In between there is a well-paced, leanly constructed 90 minutes of gloomy mise-en-scene and practical detective work.
Gérard Depardieu makes for a particularly awkward-looking Maigret, both heavily overweight and, at 73 years of age, considerably older than the character typically appears. It adds to Leconte’s palpable gloom, with Depardieu moving with what seems to be a bone-deep weariness. At key moments he feels less like Maigret and more like the detective’s shadow. At other times, the patient and methodical literary icon shines through vividly. Of course it is also awkward on a different level: given an as-yet unresolved accusation of sexual assault and his vocal admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, there cannot possibly be a less convenient time to release a Gérard Depardieu movie.
A solid supporting cast make this a remarkably easy watch. Jade Labeste plays Betty, one of many once-idealistic young woman who came to Paris hoping for fame and money only to barely survive in cheap one-room apartments. Mélanie Bernier plays Jeanine, another young woman who has actually made the unlikely leap in social station to become engaged to a rich aristocrat and socialite (Pierre Moure). The film makes good use of the gulf between Paris’ upper and lower classes, while still keeping a focus on finding justice for the anonymous stabbing victim.
There is a sense in which the film is deeply old-fashioned, but at the same time Leconte is doing something deceptively clever. He draws the viewer in on the promise of a rollicking murder mystery, and then serves them a short, sharp picture of flawed society and disappointing people. It is rather like two films at once: the first designed to sugar-coat the reflections and musings of the second. In combination, it makes for a powerful new entry into the Maigret canon.