Few critics have laid waste to an artist’s reputation as definitively as François Truffaut laid waste to the director Jean Delannoy’s. Firebrand Truffaut, in his early to mid-twenties in the early to mid-Fifties, often called upon the readers of Cahiers du Cinéma to rise up against French cinema, and he assailed Delannoy, a Palme d’Or winner for 1946’s La Symphonie Pastorale, for crafting drearily professional, impersonal films that evince nothing of their creator’s sensibility other than an interest in empty quality. This lion of the coming nouvelle vague called Delannoy “a man who is not intelligent enough to be cynical, too cunning to be sincere, and too pretentious and solemn to be straightforward,” and insisted that the worst of the movies by a film artist like Jean Renoir would always be better than Delannoy’s best. Delannoy, for his part, insisted that his job as a director was not to stamp a movie with his own perspective — it was simply to honor the script.
Among film aesthetes today, auteurism is misunderstood as a kind of hero-worshipping cant, an insistence on the director as god — of course a top Delannoy couldn’t be as interesting as a secondary Renoir. Kino Lorber’s sparkling restoration of Delannoy’s 1958 hit, Maigret Sets a Trap, offers a rare chance to test Truffaut’s dictum in an American theater. It seems to me the best of the several Delannoy films I’ve seen, but is it actually interesting?
Based on a characteristically sharp Georges Simenon novel, and featuring the indomitable Jean Gabin (who starred in no less a Renoir than Grand Illusion) at the start of his bearish sourpuss phase, this first of Delannoy’s two films about Parisian police inspector Maigret might seem like a case where just honoring the script stands as the best way to go. The crisp opening sequence finds Delannoy’s camera tracking, with alert precision, a murderer’s spree through the shadowed streets of the 4th arrondissement. Then our detective turns up, crabby and a little bored, arranging the first of several of his traps to capture the killer, who it turns out has for months been killing women of a certain type. Maigret marshals a squad of women — full-figured brunettes — who match the murderer’s interest, and then sends them out into the streets with whistles for some minor defense training. On location, shooting through windows and down alleys, Delannoy summons up interest and even excitement, especially when the story turns nasty.
But oh, dear me, the interior scenes fail to honor Simenon’s whetted prose. Even Gabin, so commanding a presence, can’t always hold our attention in the many flat, protracted colloquies in offices and apartments that all look cavernous in that way of a set on a stage. Why do thirty feet of empty gulf a police inspector’s desk and his door? In his own films, beginning a year after Maigret with The 400 Blows, Truffaut would take steps to liberate moviemakers from the tyranny of the proscenium arch, that habit of positioning the camera as if it were an audience member regarding the performers in a play. Delannoy’s staid and wearying scene craft deserves credit, I guess, for inspiring so thrilling a corrective.
That’s not to say the film’s devoid of interest. Simenon’s mystery turns on failed marriages and domineering mothers and — much like Tomas Alfredson’s The Snowman — that ridiculous serial killer habit of sending taunting missives to the cops on the case. Mystery fans may enjoy drinking deep from the headwaters of cliché. The killer eventually gets revealed as — this is a spoiler, of course — an entitled man-baby who can’t satisfy his wife sexually and remained a child at heart due to his mother’s smothering insistence that he was born brilliant. Maigret dresses him down in the final scenes, sounding something like boomers crabbing about millennials — or an older artist swiping at the bratty kids nipping at his heels. Who says Delannoy’s films never got personal?
Maigret Sets a Trap
Directed by Jean Delannoy
Opens October 20, Metrograph