Maigret a one-off, says director Patrice Leconte

Gerard Depardieu and Jade Labest in Maigret. Image courtesy Unifrance



By © Jane Freebury

The versatile, veteran French filmmaker Patrice Leconte, whose work includes fine films like The Hairdresser’s Husband, Ridicule, Girl on the Bridge and The Man on the Train, has decided to do a Maigret. It’s intriguing, and perhaps a little surprising.

The new film from Leconte has a great deal to recommend it, including a commanding central performance from Gerard Depardieu, but there have been many screen adaptations about the legendary Parisian police inspector over many years.

Would a new crime drama about Detective Jules Maigret be one too many? It is impossible to imagine the director Leconte making the kind of calculated commercial decision that is all too apparent in Hollywood, and anyway, he always has loved reading Georges Simenon, the creator of Maigret.

It isn’t the first time Leconte has adapted the work of the Belgian author either. In fact, he first rose to international attention in 1989 with his crime drama Monsieur Hire, based on a Simenon novel.

Detective Maigret of the Paris Criminal Brigade, first appeared on the page in 1931. Just a year later he appeared on the screen in a film directed by the great Jean Renoir, with his brother Pierre in the lead role.

In the early 1930s Simenon was just getting going. Between 1931 and 1975 the Belgian author wrote no less than 75 novels and 28 short stories about the Parisian detective.

We got him to stop doing that thing he did with the pipe, to quit smoking

“I came up with the idea with my writing collaborator, Jerome Tonnerre, with the thought that it was time for a new Maigret in the cinema. The last Maigret on the cinema screen was Jean Gabin in 1961, a very good Maigret. Since then, there have been numerous Maigrets on TV, but we wanted to pay homage to this great character in cinema.”

As we chat on zoom, I ask how he decided what to take out and what to leave in for a character for 2020s audiences.

“To be entirely honest, I was rather overwhelmed by the panoply of character traits. The overcoat, the bowler hat, the pipe, it all seemed to me too much. Too cliched, if you like.

“We were happy to find a device, that of the doctor advising him to quit smoking, that got him to stop doing that thing he did with the pipe.” With this, Leconte does a Maigret impression, parting his lips with a little ‘pop’ each time he draws on an imaginary pipe.

In a deft compromise, the inspector still pops the vital prop between his lips but he never lights up. Given the slow and attentive pipe-smoking ritual that complemented the approach he took to solving each case, it’s just as well. There are websites devoted to Maigret and his pipe.

Leconte’s Maigret is based on a Simenon novel published in 1953, Maigret and the Dead Girl, about the discovery of the body of a beautiful young woman in Montmartre. She has met a violent death but Maigret discovers that no one seems to know who she is or anything about her. Only that she is one of many anonymous young women from the provinces who flock to Paris and meet a sad end.

“The thing that we (Leconte and fellow screenwriter Tonnerre) found so original in Simenon, that immediately fired us up and was our reason for adapting this story which we re-wrote very freely, was that Maigret was asking himself who the young woman was that no one knew.”

“Large cities are ogres that prey upon young women from the provinces, like Louise Louvrier, the young woman (eventually identified) who is murdered in this film. It’s an eternal story.”

“The question for Maigret was who was the young woman, rather than who committed the crime. And we discover that Maigret had a daughter of the same age who died.”

Unlike super sleuths like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, he doesn’t intimidate and doesn’t have preconceptions, he does nothing but listen

How does Maigret compare with other super sleuths who are jostling for attention today? Like Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes and Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot.

“What touches me about Maigret is his profound humanity. He doesn’t have certainty. He stops, he hesitates, he searches. The super flic like Sherlock or Hercule arrives, finds the immediate little failing that gives the game away. What touches me most is that Maigret is very human, gradually finding his way.”

When in the film Maigret is asked how he makes his witnesses talk, he says he simply does nothing but listen. Instead of intimidating people, having preconceived ideas, his method is simply to pay attention to what people say.

“Exactly,” says Leconte. “And moreover, hey, he is burnt out, at the end of his tether, he has done so many investigations. But he has just enough left in him for one more case. One more shot for the young woman who has died.”

In the decades since Maigret first appeared in print in 1931, the French detective has been portrayed by a proliferation of actors of many different nationalities, including Japanese, Dutch, Russian, German and Irish. Even Britain’s Mr Bean morphed into the character, when Rowan Atkinson took on the role in popular telemovies five or so years ago.

If it is true that Georges Simenon declared that the British actor Rupert Davies who appeared in a popular Maigret television series in the 1960s was the perfect inspector, one wonders what he would make of Gerard Depardieu. I say that the French actor seems made to measure for the part.

Obviously, he has the broad-shoulders and large stature and gruff manner for Maigret, but why did Leconte think Gerard Depardieu was the man for the job?

“I thought of him pretty quickly. We had never worked together before. Though we had met briefly a couple of times, we didn’t know each other, but I had a mad admiration for this actor.

“A friend once said to me that even in a bad film or a film made for bad reasons, with Depardieu on board there are always 30 seconds of genius, of brilliance, and it is true. Working with him, I realised what an incredible skill, incredible talent he has.”

“We got on very well, and he was exemplary. And he has an incredible capacity, even when mucking around on set, telling jokes and so on, to fall immediately into character the moment we hear the clapper board.

“You could say that not concentrating is his way of concentrating. That’s how he gets it right.”

Is it possible to make a Maigret for the digital world? “Yes, why not? But this is the last Maigret you will see from me. We have simply called it Maigret. Full stop. There won’t be any others.”

“I can’t repeat myself.”

It could be the first and last time we see Depardieu do Maigret. That’s too bad.

First published in the Canberra Times on 28 May 2022. Jane’s film reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes