Détective, Jean-Luc Godard’s most commercial venture since Tout va bien (1972), zigzags amongst guests, residents and employees at a Parisian hotel. (It was filmed at the Hotel Concorde Saint-Lazare.) Except at the finish, where the action moves right outside the hotel, the film is so much confined to this place that the setting suggests imaginative space, a place of the mind—or of the crisscrossing minds of the characters. Godard’s filmmaking rarely resembles anyone else’s; but in the case of this film, it does. Perhaps it is the script by Alain Sarde and Philippe Setbon, which Godard and then-partner Anne-Marie Miéville adapted, that accounts for the Resnaisian style afoot, the lightly lit upon mosaic comprising two concentric circles of plot. However, a particular fusion of surrealism and the absurd argues for the influence of someone else to whom Godard may be paying homage: Luis Buñuel, who had passed on in 1983. You may recall this extraordinary episode in Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty (1974): A couple, beseeching the police to find their missing child, bring her in to ensure an accurate description, hence, speedy recovery. How is this possible? Don’t the parents notice that their child is right there with them? Well, no, because the reality of the child chafes against the property rights to which the parents feel entitled. The police official also doesn’t notice because it is his job to bend his behavior to the will of the wealthy and the bourgeoisie, not the reality of children. In Détective, house detective Prospero hopes to reverse the professional shame of the still unsolved murder two years earlier of a guest known as The Prince; but we may be in a time-warp, because an aging Mafia don (played by Alain Cuny, no less), who is also known as The Prince, is (at least for the moment) alive and staying at the hotel! Prospero and his nephew try solving the crime, which of course they fail to do. Time is not on their side.
Giving a brilliant and hilarious performance as Prospero’s sleuthing nephew, Isidore, Jean-Pierre Léaud steals the show. His appearance as a “detective” cannot help but remind us of his Antoine Doinel in François Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses (1968). As a result of their soured friendship, Godard has always insisted he was unfazed by Truffaut’s 1984 death. Watching Détective, I’m not so sure.
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