Review: In 'Maigret', the usually domineering Gerard Depardieu gives a subtle performance

Maigret (M, 98 minutes)

3 stars

Patrice Leconte is one of the hardest working and more respected directors in his home country of France.

And he's prolific, throwing out at least one feature film a year, a handful of which remain among the best and better remembered titles in modern French cinema.

These include the historical comedy Ridicule (1996), the melancholic The Hairdresser's Husband (1990) and the thriller Monsieur Hire (1989).

Gerard Depardieu in a scene from 'Maigret'. Picture: Supplied

Gerard Depardieu in a scene from 'Maigret'. Picture: Supplied

Leconte takes on an iconic French character for his 31st feature.

Commissioner Jules Maigret is the fictional invention of Georges Simenon, featuring in 75 novels published between 1931 and 1972.

He's as famous a character in his fictional home country as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot is in ours.

Charles Laughton played him in The Man on the Eiffel Tower in 1950, and both Michael Gambon and Rowan Atkinson have played television versions of him.

Patrice Leconte has cast an icon to play an icon, with none other than Gerard Depardieu in the title role.

Leconte styles Depardieu in a hat and cloak, and poses him backlit in alleyways and hallways like the cover of novel, enjoying playing with the iconography.

Leconte and writer Jerome Tonnerre have adapted Simenon's novel Maigret and the Dead Girl in a very linear and comfortable way.

Commissioner Maigret (Depardieu) has a lot on his mind, and not just the shadow on his lungs that has seen him give up his beloved pipe.

The body of a young brunette woman (Clara Antoons) has appeared in the morgue.

She is dressed in an outrageously expensive ballgown but everything else about her points to her being poor.

And she has been stabbed multiple times.

Working the case the old-fashioned way, Maigret goes from door to door, asking about the girl in the ballgown, until clues to her identity begins to emerge.

What he finds is the girl's name, Louise Louviere, and her former flatmate, Jeanine (Melanie Bernier).

Louise had hired the ballgown to attend the engagement party for her friend Jeanine to the smug Laurent (Pierre Moure), and was found dead hours later.

While working the case, Maigret befriends a homeless young woman Betty (Jade Labeste) who helps him with his investigation, but who also helps him understand the melancholic cloud hovering over him.

There is a dour aesthetic to Leconte's adaptation, and it seems to exist for a number of reasons, but for me it feels an authentic approach to a film set in Paris of the early 1950s.

This was when the city was coming out of the shadow of war and yet to enter the glamorous era that film costumers and set dressers adore.

His lighting approach seems to take a note from that Danish Dogma crew, very natural, sometimes to the point of gritty unwatchability.

Yves Angelo's camera is often handheld, luging towards objects so they fill the screen.

It all points to a version of film noir that is rooted in Leconte's comic book illustrator origins.

The film's characters are broken by their dashed hopes and the hard city they live in.

Or they're entitled monsters in tuxedos and diamonds, which is as old as a Simenon novel and as contemporary as an episode of The Real Housewives of Beverley Hills.

Depardieu is a beast of a man, and the heft he has added over recent decades makes Maigret a relatable fallible hero.

At one point, he looks up a stairwell's six flights and sighs, and we wonder if he will make it up them at all, much less wondering if he will uncover the killer.

Many of the roles that have made Depardieu so famous have played on his over-the-top magnetism, but his Maigret is so subtle, weary, and weighed-down.

Leconte has put so much work into the iconography in this film, I just hope he did so because he's planning a long and lucrative series of Maigret films as a superannuation plan for himself and Depardieu.

This story A subtle take on a towering icon first appeared on The Canberra Times.