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Maigret's face... and its interpretations

by Murielle Wenger
 

original French

A pipe, a hat, an overcoat... There, in three strokes, the character Maigret as drawn by his creator. A summary sketch, as Simenon intended. This simplification provides the strength of the character, into which each reader can project his own imaginary vision. And it allows any actor who tries to portray him to live within his own skin, in his own style, with his own mannerisms. But it's also what makes interpretation difficult, for the character must be credible to the viewer, and the actor has to find a "niche", a channel by which he can capture the spectator's attention and create the feeling, "that's really Maigret!" Some emphasize the physical aspect (the heaviness of the silhouette), others the psychological, the "internal", (empathy, understanding), with the best of them managing to combine both.

That being said, in response to the recent interest on the Forum regarding Maigret's physical aspect, particularly his first cinematic interpreters, it may prove enlightening to consider Simenon's own comments. We can note first what the novelist wrote about adaptations of his novels... "In writing a novel, I see my characters and I know them down to the minutest details, including much more than I describe. How can a director or an actor portray this image which only exists in my mind? Not by my descriptions, which are always brief and summary, since I want to allow the reader free play with his or her own imagination." (in Mémoires intimes). This is exactly the problem for any transposition of a work to the screen, and I think most writers must consider this transposition as more or less a "betrayal" of their work. The question is to what extent they can accept this "betrayal", which is part of the game... And this is particularly the case for the character Maigret, with whom his creator had lived long enough to have a fairly precise image, perhaps indescribable in the novels. Especially, as we've said above, since Simenon intended for Maigret to remain physically a sketch. And that's perhaps also why the author could find certain interpreters more in harmony with his vision of his character, although the actors in question were physically quite different from each other...

When Roger Stéphane interviewed Simenon in 1963 for the television production Portrait Souvenir, he asked him how an actor should go about playing Maigret. Simenon's response is pertinent, but sufficiently vague to leave latitude for the actor's interpretation... "Maigret doesn't seem intelligent. He's not an intelligent man – he's an intuitive. Not at all someone with sharp eyes who immediately sees the smallest detail. I'd even say, in the earliest novels, he seems almost bovine. He's a really big guy, almost elephantine, who walks around, sniffs around, feels his way... In other words, he's an intuitive, with nothing obviously clever about him. That's what, I believe, impresses the criminals most... When you have someone in front of you who doesn't react, someone who looks at you heavily as if he's bored, who smokes his pipe and looks at you like you're an insect, it's very hard to respond. That's a first impression of Maigret. In other words, a man of very ordinary appearance, with an ordinary intelligence too, with an average education, but who knows how to sense people, to sniff out what's inside them... When Maigret arrives at the scene of a crime, what does he do? Generally, you see him going from one room to another, opening up drawers or looking in the trash can, walking around, but not as if he's saying, 'Aha! here's a clue!'... Not at all. He seems to be thinking about something else."

Let's consider the first screen Maigret, the adaptation of La nuit du carrefour [NUI]. At the time of the making of this film (1932), what was known about the character of the Chief Inspector, physically speaking, from the novels that had been published up to that point? The essentials were laid out in the first one, Pietr le Letton [LET]... Maigret appears as a placid mass, broad and heavy, with a heavy step, a dark silhouette drawn by the outline of a heavy black overcoat. In the following novels, the novelist is satisfied to emphasize his character's corpulence, but a corpulence which must be regarded as muscular, not fat, the author making it clear that Maigret is agile, in spite of his weight. Simenon sometimes compares him to an animal, a huge beast, elephantine, who can have a monstrous side, nightmarish for the suspects he pursues. Subsequently, however, the portrait will be refined, and the heaviness will become more psychological than physical, which will not prevent the Chief Inspector from continuing to impress with his stature.

This intention to show but a silhouette of the character has as its consequence that the Chief Inspector's face is never described in the novels, and we know almost nothing about it... no indication of the shape of his nose or ears, we learn simply that he has heavy eyelids, big thick eyebrows, and that his eyes are probably light colored, of a "murky gray, after a sleepless night" (Liberty Bar [LIB]). The only indication of the color of his hair is given in Pietr le Letton [LET], "a dark chestnut brown in which a few gray hairs can hardly be seen around his temples". As for the shape of his face, it's the image of a silhouette... fleshy, broad, thick.

All these descriptions are sufficiently vague to allow choosing an interpreter according to other criteria, where the physical appearance can yield to the power of the actor, allowing for his psychological force.

When Jean Renoir came to Simenon to propose his making a cinematic adaptation of La nuit du carrefour [NUI]), he suggested, for the role of Maigret, his brother, Pierre Renoir. When we see the film, we can say that the actor, while fairly tall, is hardly "elephantine", nor are his shoulders even particularly broad, nor his face really "fleshy". Nonetheless, he pleased Simenon, who considered him, in retrospect, as the best interpreter of Maigret, for it was something beyond the physical aspect which convinced him... "Pierre Renoir... was, in my opinion, the best Maigret. He understood that a Chief Inspector of the P.J. was a civil servant. He behaved and dressed as a civil servant, maintaining always his dignity, his regard somewhat fixed and inquisitive." (in Point-Virgule, one of his Dictées). An opinion shared by Maigret himself, as he wrote in his Mémoires... "with... Pierre Renoir, the likeness was somewhat respected. I became a little taller, a little more svelte. Our faces, of course, were different, but certain attitudes were so striking that I suspected the actor of having secretly observed me." Simenon had furthermore been convinced from the start, as witnessed by his impressions confided to the newspaper Paris-Soir, April 16, 1932, a week before the première of the film, which can be read here.
 

The second screen Maigret was Abel Tarride, imposed on Simenon by his son, Jean Tarride, the director of Le chien jaune [JAU]. Simenon did not care for his portrayal, as he says in the same Dictée as above, "Abel Tarride played what's called in the theater "curves". He had a huge belly, and jowls; he was more likely to make you laugh than to represent the Police Judiciaire." Maigret too, was of the same opinion as his creator... "I became seven inches shorter, and what I lost in height, I gained in girth, becoming, with the features of Abel Tarride, obese and bland, so soft that I seemed like an animal balloon floating to the ceiling!"

If Abel Tarride, physically, would approach the description "elephantine" found for the Chief Inspector in certain novels, he effectively lacks that appearance of power which emerges in the texts... Maigret is certainly "heavy", but he's also strong, in all senses of the word... he has a certain portliness, but without flabbiness; he is, in reality, a "quiet force".
 

The third Maigret was Harry Baur, in the adaptation of La tête d'un homme [TET]. We know that Simenon experienced a thousand tribulations with this film, for which he himself wrote the scenario, and which he originally wanted to direct. After many setbacks with producers, it was Julien Duvivier who led the project to fruition. Pierre Assouline, in his biography of Simenon, tells that the novelist had planned to entrust the role of Maigret to Pierre Renoir, but that finally Duvivier preferred Harry Baur. According to Simenon (still in Point-Virgule), he would himself have chosen Harry Baur for Maigret. Does that mean that he had to? If Simenon remains discreet about his appreciation of the actor in the role, Maigret himself does not hesitate to offer his opinion... "Harry Baur was no doubt a great actor, but he had... a face that was both soft and tragic."

Physically, we see that Harry Baur did not have a particularly impressive build. As for his face, the only thing which approaches Maigret seems to be his heavy eyelids, though probably not to the extent of the Chief Inspector...
 

The next Maigret of the large screen would be Albert Préjean, whom Simenon doesn't mention in his Dictées, nor in his Mémoires intimes. (We recall that after the troubles the novelist had with La tête d'un homme [TET], he had decided to no longer involve himself directly in the adaptations of his works, satisfied to merely collect his substantial revenues.) Maigret himself found Préjean too young for the role. If Simenon, in his Mémoires intimes, wrote about sympathizing with Charles Laughton, he said nothing of his interpretation of Maigret in the adaptation of La tête d'un homme, produced in 1948 under the title L'homme de la Tour Eiffel. Maigret himself was more verbose... "I was fattened almost to bursting, at the same time as I... began to use English as my mother tongue." Laughton, physically, is very close to the elephantine Chief Inspector described in some of the early Fayard novels.

At the time of the writing of his Mémoires, Maigret had not yet experienced the joys of his television adaptations... Nor had he had the good fortune (?) to see himself incarnated by two giants of French cinéma français, Michel Simon and Jean Gabin. As for Simenon, he declared himself enthusiastic... When he saw Michel Simon as Maigret in Le témoignage de l'enfant de chœur [cho], one of the sections of the film Brelan d'As, the novelist exclaimed, "It's him! ... Maigret should be impressed by his stature... I say somewhere that he inflates himself to play the bogeyman... That's it! ... he plays from the inside." As for Gabin, Simenon said, "Gabin has done an incredible job. What's more it bothers me a little, because I'll no longer be able to see Maigret except with the features of Gabin." Sharing, through this declaration, the friendship he had with the actor...
 

Without going any further about the physical aspects of the interpreters of Maigret in film and on television, we can see, not least by consulting a gallery of their photos, how much their faces differ from one another, which has not prevented some of them from being very convincing in the role of the Chief Inspector. Proof that the features of a face play but a relative role in the composition constructed by an actor. And the face of the statue by the sculptor Pieter d'Hont is but one interpretation among others of Maigret's physiognomy. As for Simenon, he liked this statue, as he said in his Mémoires intimes, when he told of the inauguration of the statue at Delfzijl, September 3, 1966... "the drape finally fell, uncovering a Maigret who, thanks to a Dutch sculptor, looks as much as possible as the one I imagined, and that I alone know."
 

 
translation: S. Trussel
Honolulu - October 2015

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