It is almost as if designed. The last film of Claude Chabrol, who died in September, is such an apt example of his major gifts that it is almost as if he had planned a farewell. Inspector Bellamy, with a screenplay by Odile Barski and Chabrol, is another of his mysteries in which the director seems at least as interested in the characters as he is in the mystery.
Chabrol said he wanted to pay homage to Georges Simenon, whose hundred-plus novels about Inspector Maigret are only a segment of his breathtaking output. (I once spent an afternoon with Simenon, during which I asked him how long it took him to write a novel. Promptly he replied, “Eleven days.”) A further impulse was the fact that Gérard Depardieu would be in the film—his first with Chabrol—and the director saw the present-day Depardieu as the epitome of the middle-aged Maigret: possibly a bit heavier, a bit slower, suggesting more understanding of criminals and greater hatred of crime. Inspector Bellamy, a being in itself, is also a salute to Simenon and Depardieu, and—though hardly foreseen—a farewell from Chabrol.
First, we hear whistling. Then we see a cemetery. After whistling past this graveyard, we focus on Bellamy and wife, a devoted couple, who are vacationing in a small town. A stranger keeps trying to meet Bellamy, who keeps avoiding him, but the man is so persistent that at last the police inspector meets him. This leads to a story involving insurance scams, marital mix-ups, death. Through it all Bellamy moves as if he had encountered this story before yet is intrigued by the new wrinkles and the specific people involved.
Further, the film develops a parallel structure. Bellamy becomes entangled in a somewhat symmetrical mystery. His half-brother turns up—a handsome, alcoholic, bright layabout whom Bellamy has often helped previously and who is back for more. The brother’s presence leads to somewhat deeper self-knowledge for Bellamy.
The film is so clearly made to do no more than engage an intelligent viewer that we are glad it succeeded. Along the way, we can savor the clever little inventions by Chabrol to move his story along. For just one instance, Bellamy arrives at a woman’s house and sees a watering can lying on the terrace floor. This leads to a blunt discovery. The whole sequence takes perhaps five seconds, but we can see that Chabrol searched beforehand for a means of revealing the fact without cliché.
One benefit that a really big film star provides is the assurance of embrace before we even see his or her new film. Depardieu himself knows that he doesn’t have to begin, as most actors must, by winning the audience: that was done long ago. He can just enter and get right down to business, without implicit or explicit fanfare. What a warm dividend this kind of encounter is on the time we have invested in Depardieu. And what a piece of good luck that he and Chabrol joined up just before it was too late.
Nothing Personal could not be more of a contrast to the Chabrol. It is a first film; it has a simple narrative with only two characters, though minor ones flit through occasionally; and we never learn their backgrounds or even their names. Finally, although every moment is realistic, the story is a fantasy—it couldn’t happen. Except that we see it happening.
In a town on the west coast of Ireland a young woman leaves her apartment—her rooms are bare, her small effects for sale on the lawn—and starts off down the road with a backpack. We learn from one of the few things she says to anybody that she doesn’t know or care where she is going. She tramps along for a few days, sleeping sometimes in a field within a tiny tent that she has. Once she even breaks into an empty house and uses it overnight. She scrounges for food as she can.
After a while she comes to an isolated house on the coast—the enchanting Connemara coast. She sits on a bench outside the door, and a man appears in the doorway, quiet, interested, obviously a man of some poise and distinction. He asks her name, and she tells him it’s none of his business. (Throughout the film he calls her “you,” and she never even asks his name.) He appreciates her aloofness almost humorously. He puts a plate of food next to her. He offers her work in his garden, which she accepts.
The expected does not happen between them, at least not as we might have imagined. They are two people, not two pawns in a formula. She continues to work for him, but she sleeps in her tent outside. We learn somewhat more about him than about her because we move through his house, which is comfortably furnished and stocked with food and wine and music of various kinds. We do not learn who he is or how he can afford this house and his life there. He takes his motorboat into a town for supplies once in a while, but we don’t go with him.
One particularly stormy night he insists that she come inside, into a room of her own with a key. Yet in their extremely taciturn way—she obviously controlling a range of feelings, he watching her control them—they have meals together, dig peat together, listen to music together.
One day he looks through her things when she’s outside, learns the address of her former home, and goes to visit her long-deserted rooms. The landlady there apparently thinks he wants to rent them, but he just walks around them, absorbing atmosphere. “You” has meanwhile looked through his clothes and found a few hints—of no consequence. Eventually they do bed together, but it is not the consummation of a roaring romance, just the next step along the way. Matters proceed enticingly to the ending of the film, which is more of an explanation—partial, anyway—than a surprise.
The writer and director of Nothing Personal was a Polish-born woman, Urszula Antoniak, who lives in Holland and has been working in Dutch television. Possibly because of production help in Ireland, she made most of her first feature there—in English. What she is chiefly interested in, it would seem, is the silence deep within a person and the struggle to guard and retain selfhood in a world that claws constantly at you, trying to make you join in. Her film, by its very existence, seems almost to be her own self-defense. How many of us, woman or man, can simply leave the clawing and move on until we reach an accommodating companion in a lovely refuge? This is not likely to happen, Antoniak seems to have said, and for that very reason she had to make her film.
She is wonderfully helped by one familiar actor and one newcomer. Stephen Rea, the Irish stalwart, gives maturity and patience to the man. A young Dutch actress, Lotte Verbeek, who has glorious red hair, also has sensitivity and smolder. These two actors have helped Antoniak to create a small, haunting poem.
Logically enough, the French director Claire Denis has frequently addressed the subject of black Africans. Though she was born in Paris, in 1948, she spent most of her early years in West Africa as the daughter of a French colonial official. After film education in Paris and apprenticeship to Jacques Rivette, whose intra-cinematic style has had little effect on her, she made her first feature, Chocolat (1988), largely an account of the experiences of a little white girl in Africa growing up emotionally close to black people. Her last film, 35 Shots of Rum (2008), was a variation on her biracial interests: it dealt with black Africans in Paris.
Now, with White Material, she shifts to a different perspective on racial complexities: this film is seen from a thoroughly white perspective. The setting is an unnamed African country. It hardly needs a name: almost every day the newspaper brings word of violence in some African country. In this place, rebels are fighting the government, and though we don’t see a great deal of gore, there are the familiar drastic results. The black actor Isaach De Bankolé, often important in Denis’s work, here plays a rebel leader who is wounded when we meet him and is simply recumbent in one house after another. A symbol, perhaps. The center of the story, written by Marie N’Diaye and Denis, is a woman named Maria Vial (played by Isabelle Huppert) who is trying to save her family’s coffee plantation in the midst of wild turbulence. The crop is coming in just as the workers begin to flee, and she frantically tries to recruit help amid the turmoil.
Family crises involving her stepson and son, her father-in-law and husband, thicken the troubles. But the supervening sense is that Maria is doing more than trying to save the crop and the money involved. She is trying to save (as she thinks) a beneficial order of things—at least in relationship to a cloudy future. The subject is hardly new, alas, and is far from finished, alas again. Two of the artists who have dealt with it are J.M. Coetzee and Doris Lessing—not imperialists but comprehenders. If, occasionally, through these writers and others, White Material seems a touch familiar, the director and the actress brusquely remind us that it is not familiar to Maria.
Denis’s style is straightforward, practical. The editing in and out of time sequence can be a bit distracting, and the cinematography is plain, careful to keep as figuratively invisible as possible. Another comprehender herself, Denis has a sincerity that sustains everything. However, the film coalesces principally through the passion and courage in Huppert’s performance as Maria. Often we feel that, through Huppert, Maria is trying to grasp and hold the entire globe, Africa and the whole world, to halt its turning from the orderly past to a chaotic future.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article ran in the December 2, 2010, issue of the magazine.