Scandalous to screw up a role at this point! How could anyone choose Mister Jean Richard, child of the circus, to embody Jules Maigret, star the P.J., child of the inventive genius of Simenon, today globally mourned?
When you follow the telefilms where this poor Richard holds sway as "sleuth", there is cause to snatch up a slipper to beat the record for the launching of an identified flying object in the direction of the small screen! Because to suck on a pipe under a too-tight hat, to sail into everyone, and to sniff Mme Maigret's stew are but measly things, insufficient to return a credible myth.
Jean Richard has always confused Champignol with the Quai des Orfèvres. Too late, apparently, to send him back to his dear studies (of the circus), but how could anyone put up with this oaf as expressive as a door post for so long?
Although he had generally lost interest in movies based on his writings, Simenon never hid it: he hated Richard. On the other hand, he judged strong a Raimu (ah, his pro-youth allegation at the end of "Les Inconnus dans la Maison"!), a Michel Simon (ah, the troubling Jewish loner Hirovitch, said M. Hire, creating an uproar on a motor-scooter in "Panique" and spellbound by Viviane Romance!); but for the Liège novelist it was Gabin who "stuck" best to Maigret, lending him sly malice, an insatiable curiosity, suppressed anger and quite a lot of humanity under the surly air of a cop not on the take!
From one Jean to another, let's move from the sad Richard to the excellent Gabin. Ignoring the rarities, Pierre Renoir in La Nuit du Carrefour, Abel Tarride in Le Chien Jaune and Harry Baur in La Tête d'un home, nearly 60 years later, it is Gabin who is remembered above all. In the films he didn't only do Maigret the one who "set a trap" to catch the criminal couple Jean Desailly-Annie Girardot he also, over a period of three decades, slipped himself into the skin of some ten other Simenon heroes: in La Marie du port (1949), the mature, strong and unmarried tradesman fooled by an ambitious and sly maid (Nicole Courcel); in Le Président (1960), a leader of the Council of the 3rd Republic, mad with integrity; in Le Chat (1971), the pivot of the failed union of two widowers, corresponding by brief notes, whose domestic war crystallized around a pussycat...
On balance, however, our preferences go to two works, where, if there is a crime, it is the "why" of psychological analysis which prevails over the "who" of police intrigue. Two works where the social backgrounds, the secret and muffled life of the provinces, the bourgeois social life... confer to the theme a thickness, a density, a rich complexity worthy of the Balzac of today.
So in La vérité sur Bébé Donge (1951 Henri Decoin) one cannot forget Gabin, agonizing, to reconstitute the puzzle of his past risen to rich industrialist, he triumphs in his career, but fails in his marriage. He appears clumsy, disconcerted, stuck, facing the one who attempted to poison him: Danielle Darrieux, ambiguous in her silence. Did she use the arsenic because she was a wife ridiculed or because she could no longer stand to live without love at the side of a man too loved?
Ditto for En cas de malheur (1958 Autant-Laras). The poetry of wasteland, the routine of mills, little Calva closeted with Lucas or Janvier, the damp cobblestones... are replaced by an in camera spiced with eroticism: Gabin-Gobillot, renowned lawyer, exasperated by his wife (Edwige Feuillère) becomes infatuated with a young client of devastating sexuality (Brigitte Bardot) who will drive him to his ruin. The least significant scenes... are certainly not those where B.B., arched on the corner of a desk, raises her skirt to the waist whispering, "So that you can benefit before they throw me in prison", or where she bribes the maid (Nicole Shepherd) into an orgy "like in a little harem".
You see it nothing is more deceptive than a Simenon novel. On reading it, you think it was intended for the screen, as if it were sufficient to merely transport the chapters. But the pitfalls are multiple: a little too much atmosphere, an excess of estheticism, or timidity, and the missteps ruin the endeavor. Carné himself had the experience with Trois chambres à Manhattan. Jean-Pierre Melville didn't have much more success with Belmondo-Vanel in L'Aîné des Ferchaux. Here, like there, the "American sauce" didn't take.
It remains to note that a film-maker's unquestionable talent is not necessarily an indicator of the success of a Simenon film version. The master of suspense, Hitchcock, always kept well clear of the Belgian writer. As if the bar had been placed too high. Chabrol and the boys of the "New Wave" showed the same fear, including Truffaut who, however, confided in November 1967, "I don't know the work of Albert Camus well. I read one piece, Les Justes, which I found troubling, and then The Stranger, which was proposed to me to make a film of. I didn't find it as good as any of 200 Simenons!"
Actually, the universe of Simenon presents itself like an enclosed world, surrounded by an unornamented art, finished and perfect in itself, escaping therefore all translation into any language except its own. It should be approached with extreme humility and, possibly, with the qualities of a craftsman rather than a virtuoso's sophistication. It is in this sense that a middling director like Pierre Granier-Deferre finally succeeded in restoring the clean texture of the books by the author of Le Chat, Le Train, La Veuve Couderc, and L'Etoile du Nord, of which the star, Simone Signoret, transplanted into the rich soil of the land of Charleroi, was sensational as Mme Baron, "Renting rooms, simple but adequate" to a crowd of cosmopolitan boarders... "
After Gilles Grangier, Verneuil, Delannoy, Phil Karlson (Les Frères Rico), Ralph Habib, Jean Delannoy, Bertrand Tavernier and Co., who will be the next director to tackle a Simenon film? A Belgian, a Frenchman, or...? Whoever he is, there is no shortage of appetizing topics, from Les Anneaux de Bicêtre to the astonishing evocation of black Africa, Le Coup de lune...
translation: Stephen Trussel
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