Tendre Poulet (1977)

vt Dear Inspector; vt Dear Detective
France / 106 minutes / color / Ariane, Mondex, GEF–CCFC Dir: Philippe de Broca Pr: Alexandre Mnouchkine, Georges Dancigers, Robert Amon Scr: Philippe de Broca, Michel Audiard Story: Le Commissaire Tanquerelle et le Frelon (1976) by Jean-Paul Rouland and Claude Olivier Cine: Jean-Paul Schwartz Cast: Annie Girardot, Philippe Noiret, Catherine Alric, Hubert Deschamps, Paulette Dubost, Roger Dumas, Raymond Gérôme, Guy Marchand, Simone Renant, Georges Wilson, Henri Czarniak, Maurice Illouz, Georges Riquier, Armelle Pourriche, Francis Lemaire, Guy Antoni, Guy Di Rigo, Jacqueline Doyen

For some reason I had it in mind this was a far more noirish movie than it proved to be; I must have been getting it confused in decades-ago memory with something a bit dourer, like Pierre Granier-Deferre’s ADIEU POULET (1975; vt The French Detective) or even Claude Chabrol’s POULET AU VINAIGRE (1984; vt Cop au Vin). However, on what was effectively a first-time watch I fell completely in love with the piece, and thus persuaded myself it deserved a place here. Even though it’s essentially a romantic farce in police-procedural guise, there are four murders, one of which is shown in moderately grim detail, so it does kinda sorta hook into the French school of noir.

No?

Well, that’s my justification, anyway.

Lise Tanquerelle (Girardot) is a senior police detective and divorced mother in Paris. One day, hurrying home in the car for the birthday party of her little daughter Catherine (Pourriche), she knocks Professor Antoine Lemercier (Noiret) off his moped. After she’s got him patched up, they realized that many years ago, when both were students at the Sorbonne, they had an unconsummated hankering for each other that petered out when family and the long vacation got in the way.

Annie Girardot as Lise

Both are interested in rekindling the flame. Lise, not wanting to put him off, keeps secret the fact that she’s a cop. This is difficult, because she’s promptly put in charge of a high-profile murder investigation: parliamentary deputy Vincent Grandville (Antoni) has been fatally stabbed in the back in the midst of a crowd leaving a boxing match.

There’s an immediate suspect. Just before the murder, Grandville was in an altercation with another deputy, Alexandre “Sansandre” Mignonac (Wilson, in splendid form). The two men were quarreling over the shared affections of the beautiful, charming Christine Vallier (Alric).

Philippe Noiret as Antoine

But it’s not just with these two deputies that Christine shares those affections! There’s also Maurice Rombard (Di Rigo), who’s the next deputy to be murdered. Indeed, leafing through a directory of parliament’s current deputies, Christine appears to have difficulty remembering exactly who are and aren’t the lucky ones. The only male who’s impervious to her charms is her apartment building’s caretaker, Charmille (Deschamps), who knew her mom and keeps a quasi-paternal eye on her.

Catherine Alric as Christine

The corpses start to pile up. The victims are all stabbed in the back, typically in a crowded situation, using an awl, and these awls have a distinctive leopard design on the hilt. It’s this clue that will eventually lead Lise to the serial killer—despite her being, because of the pressure of public opinion, replaced on the case by loathed rival Inspector Beretti (Marchand).

Through all of this, the romance between Lise and Antoine is flourishing, despite his learning that she’s a cop, despite the fact that he’s a longtime-bachelor-style fusspot with an exaggerated love of his fodder, despite the best efforts of Lise’s live-in mother (Dubost) and Aunt Suzanne (Renant) to help the romance along, despite . . .

Roger Dumas as Guérin

The movie I kept recalling while watching this was Leo McCarey’s screwball classic The Awful Truth (1937), not just because there’s a direct comparison to be made between Joyce Compton’s character there and Catherine Alric’s character here but because there seems to be a conscious visual quote from that movie: late in The Awful Truth comes a moment when Irene Dunne’s character indicates to Cary Grant’s that he should join her in bed pronto; her facial expression is mirrored near-exactly by Girardot’s Lise in very similar circumstances here.

Girardot’s Lise and Noiret’s Antoine are, above all else (and the movie has so many fine qualities it’s hard even to think of listing them), what make Tendre Poulet an absolutely compelling watch. Both of them have been round the block a few times—especially Lise who, it’s clear, has cut a bit of a swathe in her day. As lovers they’re not Tristan and Iseult: this is a tale of love in middle age, and all the more romantic for that.

Georges Wilson as Mignonac

We begin to see Lise not as the rather plain even if captivatingly scatterbrained woman we initially saw but, through Antoine’s eyes (and indeed those of her sidekick Marcel Guérin [Dumas], one of her past conquests), as someone very lovely indeed. She’s also a topnotch detective and courageous in the line of duty, as evidenced by her position in the department’s hierarchy despite its entrenched sexism: so far as I noticed, she’s the only female detective there. As another cop observes after Lise has solved the case, “To do her job she has to be a pain in the ass every day.”

Noiret, for his part, plays Antoine as an ostensibly leftwing teddy bear—an old-style French socialist. One of numerous sparkling sequences in the movie sees him telling a string of “hilarious” anti-cop anecdotes while jammed into Lise’s crowded car, with a bunch of others, not realizing all the others there are cops.

Philippe Noiret (left) as Antoine with Hubert Deschamps as Charmille

There isn’t a weakness that I could see in the supporting cast. Dubost and Renant, as Lise’s mother and aunt respectively, had me breaking into a grin every time they came on screen, and Pourriche, as Lise’s daughter, was cuter than any mortal child has a right to be—well, okay, aside from my own daughter at that age. Raymond Gérôme, as the status-conscious Chief of the Criminal Division, hits the spinelessness and vacuity spot-on, while Henri Czarniak and Maurice Illouz, as Lise’s colleagues Cassard and Picot, could easily take the leads in other cop movies. Hubert Deschamps is just perfect as the grumpy yet paternalistic caretaker.

Paulette Dubost (left) and Simone Renant as Lise’s mother and aunt, Suzanne

Armelle Pouriche as Catherine

Some of the humor reminded me a little of Jacques Tati, even though this is not at all a Jacques Tati-style movie. At one stage Lise’s police car rear-ends a taxi and, this being Paris, there ensues a huge argument with copious gesticulations. Two sanitation workers who’ve been observing have this to say afterwards:

Then there’s the glorious sequence where Antoine, a keen amateur chorister, has just started his big solo in an alfresco recital when a storm breaks: as rain lashes down and thunderclaps rock the heavens, he persists, determined, even as the audience and then his fellow-choristers bolt for cover. Oh, and did I mention Lise trying to interview a suspect without realizing she’s still wearing a couple of the rollers put in her hair by outrageously camp coiffeur Antonio (Lemaire)? (Only in a French movie would a cop accept the offer of a freebie hairdo in the midst of a murder hunt.)

Raymond Gérôme as Lise’s boss

Guy Marchand as Beretti

Best of all, perhaps, is the car chase. The killer appropriates Lise’s car and forces Antoine at gunpoint to drive it in an attempted getaway. Alas, Antoine has for decades preferred his moped to a car, and has never learned how to get out of second gear. So the car lurches and stalls and grunts along at not much more than walking pace, with the cops dutifully chasing behind. Guérin, driving the pursuing cop car, even dozes off at the wheel . . .

This was remade in 1979 as the pilot—which I haven’t seen but am told is dreadful—for the short-lived TV series Dear Detective, starring Brenda Vaccaro; it seems only three episodes were aired after the pilot. Tendre Poulet was sequeled by On a Volé la Cuisse de Jupiter (1980; vt Jupiter’s Thigh), again directed by Philippe de Broca, with Girardot and Noiret reprising their roles as Lise and Antoine and with Alric supporting, but not as Christine Vallier. Thanks to a kind loan from a friend who heard my wails that I wanted the chance to watch this sequel, I’ll be covering it here in a few weeks’ time.

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