Not for the first time I feel as if my reading habits might be working against my ability to enjoy a film-as-film. The great Belgian crime writer, Georges Simenon (1903-89), is a personal addiction. By any standards, Simenon is one of the most remarkable authors of all time. He is said to have written in excess of 400 books under his own name and a variety of pseudonymns. Of more than 200 autograph novels, at least 75 of them feature his most famous creation, Inspector Maigret.
Simenon is known for being able to write a novel of roughly 200 pages in eleven days. He also claimed to have had sex with 10,000 women. This incredible feat of multitasking suggests a heavy reliance on prostitutes, who provided him with insights into the seedy, underground side of life in Paris. Most surprising of all is the quality and consistency of Simenon’s writing. I’ve read all 39 of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels, and can declare that 3 or 4 of them are duds. This is a pretty good ratio, but I can’t say I’ve ever read a bad book by Simenon.
The Maigret novels are spare and unpretentious, with an immaculate sense of detail and a mastery of psychology that left more prestigious authors gasping. André Gide and François Mauriac, both Nobel Prize winners, were fans who openly confessed their envy and admiration.
The style of the books lend themselves to film adapation, and a long study could be written about the many movies and TV series featuring Maigret. The Inspector has been portrayed by actors as diverse as Jean Gabin, Charles Laughton, Richard Harris and Michael Gambon. The most recent TV version starred Rowan Atkinson, better known as Blackadder and Mr. Bean.
Having lived with an image of Maigret for so many years, I can’t reconcile Atkinson with the imposing, heavy-set character from the novels. He is a quality performer but exactly the wrong physical type. It’s tempting to say that Maigret must be a Frenchman. In his traits, his thoughts and worldview, he is quintessentially French. His physical appearance counts for a lot in the way he intimidates his opponents, although his preferred weapon is patience rather than violence. Maigret’s ‘method’ is simply to keep asking the right kind of questions, relying on instinct and experience to guide his steps. He can be moody and melancholy, and is prone to dwell too long on his cases, constantly phoning Madame Maigret to tell her he won’t be home for dinner.
Following a trail of novels that stretches from the 1930s to the 1970s, we watch Maigret aging, looking forward to retirement with hope and trepidation. We see the human sympathies and anxieties that lie beneath the unflappable public persona. We become familiar with his drinks and his pipes; with the strange warmth he feels towards some of the old, harmless criminals he encounters, like one long-term professional dealing with another.
Maigret’s complexities have evolved over an extended period, and this presents problems for any actor who takes on the part. In Patrice Leconte’s Maigret, the starring role is assigned to Gérard Depardieu, one of the great French character actors. The union of Leconte, Simenon and Depardieu has been hailed as the proverbial match-made-in-heaven, and the movie was warmly received by audiences at this year’s French Film Festival. It may be helpful that the actor has just renounced his former friendship with Vladimir Putin, although there’s still that unfortunate sexual assault charge…
Objectively speaking, Maigret is a wellmade film that will satisfy the majority of moviegoers. Depardieu captures most of Maigret’s mannerisms and lacks nothing in sheer physical heft. If anything he’s rather too large. Leconte gets the visuals right, taking us into the backstreets, the restaurants and bars, the shabby bedsitters, and the gloomy police headquarters at the Quai des Orfèvres.
My reservations spring from the changes Leconte has made to the tight, unspectacular plot of Simenon’s novel, Maigret and the Dead Girl (1954) freshly translated in 2017. The power of the writing springs from the atmosphere of small-time tragedy that develops around a murdered girl, as Maigret discovers more about her life, and the train of events that brought her to Paris, where she is found dead on the streets of Pigalle, wearing a rented evening dress.
In the book, as in real life, there are parts of the story that go nowhere, other aspects that lie concealed, and a resolution of the mystery that occurs with unexpected speed. In their script, Leconte and co-writer, Jérôme Tonnerre, have decided that Simenon’s story would benefit from a little sexing up, some new plotlines and a more exotic cast of characters. It would be foolish to complain too much because it’s virtually impossble to make a successful adaptation of a book without significant changes. The bigger question is whether the changes remove something essential or add an incongruous element.
My gut feeling is that Simenon would not have been impressed by the addition of an ingénue named Betty (Jade Labeste); and a perverse, wealthy family, under the matriarchal authority of Aurore Clément. This is a plot device that takes us out of Clichy and into cliché (Sorry). The story becomes focused on innocence lost and exploited, but the slow burn of tragedy is diffused.
With Simenon it’s often the minor characters who leave the strongest impression: the dead girl’s mother, who spends her life in a daze at the casino, or the hapless Inspector Lognon, who wallows in the belief that everything is conspiring against him. In place of these we have a new set of characters in which psychological acuity is sacrificed for melodrama.
Much of the story is told from Maigret’s perspective, but it’s an old, sad Maigret who is warned off his beloved pipe by a doctor, and looks ready to keel over at any moment. This may be in line with Depardieu’s own famously bloated condition, but he tends to make Maigret seem morbidly dilapidated. Putting these thoughts to one side, Depardieu is also too good an actor, and too commanding a screen presence to be dismissed in this role. I’m not entirely convinced, but I’d be happy to watch a sequel.
In Leconte’s favour is the way he has stuck to the slow-building procedures of the classical detective story, aside from a terribly stagey plot device at the end. There’s no point in forcing a conclusion that needs to emerge gradually under the accumulation of evidence. Like Maigret with a calavados, the typical Simenon story needs to be savoured in small sips.
Directed by Patrice Leconte
Written by Patrice Leconte & Jérôme Tonnerre, after a novel by Georges Simenon
Starring: Gérard Depardieu, Jade Labeste, Mélanie Bernier, Aurore Clément, Pierre Moure, Anne Loiret, Clara Antons, Hervé Pierre, Elizabeth Bourgine
France, rated M, 89 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 28 May, 2022