You know what, if I were 79 years old and had 57 feature films to my name, I'd probably feel like I didn't really have much to prove, and this is the chief reason that I am willing to spot the great French mystery director Claude Chabrol his latest, Bellamy: it is a frothy mystery that you could call comic largely because no other adjective seems to apply very well, and it is in most respects a retread of themes and ideas that have been presented better elsewhere - but it is fun, pleasant, and even a little bit snarky in its vision of modern culture. Besides, it features Gรฉrard Depardieu in a truly excellent performance, something that we haven't seen in America for a really long time, for in this country the name "Depardieu" is as likely to conjure My Father the Hero as Sous le soleil de Satan.

Anyway, Depardieu plays the titular Paul Bellamy, a nationally-famous police inspector vacationing with his wife Franรงoise (Marie Bunel) in her hometown of Nimes. Paul, we are given to understand, is not the kind of fellow who vacations with a great deal of enthusiasm, and he jumps at the first chance he gets to do some detective-ing when a mysterious stranger (Jacques Gamblin) starts to hover around the Bellamys' garden, begging the inspector to hear him out in regards to a very peculiar crime that he may or may not have committed, involving the murder of a man... in a manner of speaking. Paul is intrigued, particularly since it saves him from having to interact with his half-brother Jacques Lebas (Clovis Cornillac), who's just come along to crash in the spare bedroom and remind Paul of years of animosity.

This is the film's easily-identified biggest problem, narrative-like: it is the story of a man who can never turn his mind off when he's not working, who always has to engage with the convoluted rhythm of humanity, and after a certain point, his very lovely, long-suffering wife starts to find it irritating; and though he knows that he's putting a strain on the marriage, he just can't help himself. It is also the story of a man with a whole lot of emotional baggage, born from a family life that doesn't appear to have been exactly the bee's knees - something bad happened between him and his half-brother, and whatever it was, it was profound enough to drive him to a life as inspector to fulfill some void that is explained, very near to the end of the film. Both of these stories are interesting studies. Both are exceedingly well-acted by Depardieu, and lovely to look at. Neither one really informs the other or gives any insight into what's going on, particularly at the end of the "detective" plot, when the film rather abruptly and without apparent motivation turns into a courtroom drama for five minutes.

But if it doesn't necessarily cohere as a narrative (never one of Chabrol's primary goals) nor as character study, though it comes closer (and this indeed is more typical of Chabrol, though it is odd and noteworthy that his traditionally prominent theme - the sordid, pathetic behavior of the moneyed classes - is almost completely absent from Bellamy), the film is not therefore absent its own kind of pleasures. Depardieu's startlingly good performance, good enough to remind you that he was one of the biggest actors in French cinema once upon a time, is certainly one of those pleasures, as is the interplay between him and most of his castmates, particularly the ladies, of whom there are many (the plot, such as it is, is episodic: there are several scenes where he meets somebody, chats with them, and then they fall out of the movie entirely). Perhaps the best of all is the impeccable chemistry between Depardieu and Bunel, playing a late-middle-age with a joyous erotic edge that is not that rare in French cinema, but always seems like such a brave thing in America, as though the idea that sex happens after 40 is some terribly edgy concept. At any rate, watching these two actors bouncing glances and flirtations off of each other is tremendously blissful; if a genuinely happier married couple has been seen on-screen anywhere in 2009, I managed to miss it completely.

Almost as good is the interplay between Depardieu and Cornillac; an angry pas-de-deux of mutual distrust and bad blood. Frankly, between the lady Bellamy and the sullen half-brother, I could have done without the half-formed mystery, with its wobbly attempt to engage with the current European economic slump, entirely - but then it would have been even less a Chabrol film, I suppose. Yet the family story is rich enough and interesting enough that it feels something of an imposition to cut away from it.

On the technical side of things, Eduardo Serra turns in characteristically good work on the camera, making Bellamy look dappled and lovely and also a bit dusty and worn; if a movie could be said to look as quintessentially "Romantic French" as possible, that is the case with this film. I am a bit unnverved by the editing, however, with its frequent dissolves and fades to black that always tend to jam the flow of the movie, making it putter along like an overly fussy costume drama. I do not deny Chabrol the right to make a deliberately plodding, drifting film; but I also do not force myself to like that he has done so.

It is probably best to say that Bellamy is for the Chabrol completists only, if such a creature still exists out in the world; but for them - for, indeed, anyone who stumbles into it unawares - there is plenty to enjoy about the film, for it is ultimately made in the spirit of light fun. Both Paul's personal problems and his professional inquiries are treated with a light, serio-comic touch that is funny without being whispered and serious, and the movie is a bit of a dessert for it; but you can tell that Chabrol found it pleasant and relaxing to make, and that is why it is pleasant and relaxing to watch.

7/10