Patrice Leconte's adaptation of George Simenon's novel Maigret and the Dead Girl (original title: Maigret et la jeune morte) features a heavy-hitter name in the role of the word-worn Police Commissioner Jules Maigret, more specifically the legendary French acting giant Gérard Depardieu, adding noteworthy cast members in the supporting roles framing the protagonist and featuring a non-presumptuous, understated quality that pervades nearly every aspect of the production, Leconte, who has already adapted a Simenon standalone novel for the silver screen in the 1989 motion picture Monsieur Hire starring Michel Blanc and Sandrine Bonnaire, co-signs the screenplay along with Jérôme Tonnerre and their collaboration pays off and rewards the audience with subtle, meticulously crafted dialogue parts and even narrative pacing while structuring the story on the basis of effective characterization, which in the case of Maigret is furthermore consistent with that of the original source and Simenon's understanding of the protagonist's portrait, as well as the concoction of a subdued atmosphere lacking any trace of superficiality that arrests your thoughts and feelings. The mood conveyed to the audience is reminiscent of that created on page by the Belgian author of 75 Maigret novels and 28 short stories featuring one of the most iconic detectives in the global history of crime fiction, his full name being Jules Amédée François Maigret.
Depardieu, who is present in nearly every scene of the movie, leads the show with a performance worthy of his stature and reputation as an artist, breathing life to a character who is unlike today's detectives-protagonists as depicted in the works of the crime fiction genre, either in literature or on-screen. Maigret is a quiet, wise man whose primary professional skill is knowing how to extract information from an individual, adapting his attitude to the special characteristics of the others through his trademark perspicacity that always yields results each time and leads him to the right track in his investigations. Jennie Kermode, in her review of the movie published on the Eye For Film website provides an apt, pithy summary of the character's temperament: "a man who has no interest in ego, who sets the preoccupations of youth -being understood, being treated fairly- to focus everything on his pursuit of 'what we call the truth'" (you can find the full review here). The audience follows Maigret's indispensable legwork that chiefly includes a series of private interrogations of persons of interest and witnesses that cover a substantial part of the film's runtime, while advancing the plot through interpersonal, meaningful interaction and not by resorting to heated action sequences or nail-biting suspenseful moments which are meant to titillate the viewer. The narrative form of the typical whodunit along with the mere repetition of its banal tropes are rejected by the creators who focus on the question of who (the victim's identity which remains a mystery for the first half) and why, the reasoning behind the atrocious murder of a young woman who is found dead, stabbed five times in her body, in a Parisian neighborhood wearing an evening gown and having no I.D. The investigation is assigned to Maigret and thus the story begins.
At this point, I would like to call your attention to some facts regarding the history of the on-screen, either cinematic or in television, adaptations of Maigret's long-standing literary saga which began in 1931 and ended in 1972. There have been several attempts to tailor Simenon's texts into the language of visual arts and a flock of eminent actors fleshed out the commissioner of the Paris Brigade Criminelle through the span of quite a few decades. Pierre Renoir was the first, chronologically, as he played Maigret in the 1932 Night at the Crossroads and from then on he was succeededed by Jean Richard, Michael Gambon, Jean Gabin, Charles Laughton -who was the first English-speaking Maigret starring in the 1950 production The Man on the Eiffel Tower- and more recently Rowan Atkinson who did more than good in his portrayal of the protagonist in the 2016/2017 4-part mini-series. Though there is a lack of consensus regarding to who delivered the most convincing Maigret realization, Michael Gambon, who played the French detective in the 1992-1993 English production Maigret, seems to be the actor who holds the majority of the relevant votes given by the audience. However, never before a superstar of Gérard Depardieu's caliber had accepted the challenge to play the part and the veteran French actor knows how to lend his unique gravitas to the character, creating a physically looming figure whose imposing exterior appearance is juxtaposed with the kindness and sympathy by which he approaches other human beings in both his private and professional life.
Depardieu's brilliance lies in his watchfulness to avoid any display of extravagance in his portrayal, opting for a grounded, more unobtrusive depiction of a character whose mentality is completely lacking any element related to hyperbole. Maigret is a measured man, who proves to be profoundly humane as illustrated through his interactions with those who are most vulnerable within the confines of the screenplay, being deeply shocked by the crime that kickstarts the narrative and with the investigation becoming more personal as the plot unravels. The writers show restrain and choose to refrain from exposition, providing the audience with delicate indications that the alert viewer ought to be able to recognize and comprehend. Kermode, again, summarizes adroitly Leconte and Depardieu's perception of Maigret: "Patrice Leconte's take on this iconic character is the antithesis of crime film as we have come to know it. It is intentionally minimalist; it disregards sensation" . This is what sets this title apart from the overly-dramatic, action-packed interpretations of the genre in the works originating both from the United States and Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries. Forget the typical Nordic detective-hero fighting with his vices and personal demons. Do not expect labyrinthine plotlines, a story filled with distractions and red herrings, a suspenseful watch that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Leconte's Maigret puts forth a distinct tone and its appeal rests in its close attention to the detail; take for example the accuracy in the representation of life in post-war Paris, circa 1953, with all its class tensions and conflicts truthfully represented within the story's confines.
Concluding, I should add that the role of Maigret was initially offered to another prominent French actor, Daniel Auteuil, though due to the delay of the production during the Covid-19 outbreak period, the part eventually fell to Depardieu, thus offering us a chance to relish the performance of a radiant actor in an emblematic role. Maigret will not disappoint the most refined crime fiction fans who are exasperated with the formulaic renditions of the genre, provided that they know what they are about to see beforehand. Given that, I think that it will turn out to be one of the most underrated films of this year.