Michel Serrault, like his co-star here, Isabelle Adjani, used to be in everything. As ubiquitous as Depardieu. La cage aux folles might be his best-known film. Despite his omnipresence, he seems surprising casting as a private eye known only as "the Eye," but then he does have inverted Vs for eyebrows, just like Hammett's description of Sam Spade.
The Eye has a class photograph of a group of schoolgirls. He's talking to his ex-wife on the phone. She won't tell him which one is his daughter. He guesses wrong. He'll be allowed another guess in a year. There are about thirty kids to choose from.
What a brilliant opening scene! We'll forgive the strutting eighties music and neo-noir Venetian blind shadows. This is a film besotted with movie-ness and wallowing in plot contrivance, but it's also perverse, haunted and romantic. The Eye is warned against letting his new case get too complicated. Of course it does anyway.
A wealthy couple want their son's new lover investigated. They're right to be suspicious: she's Isabelle Adjani and she's soon consigning his body to the bottom of a lake and running off with his savings. The Eye has seen all this through the lens of one of the absurd array of cameras he owns (every time he reaches for one it's a different variety, just as every television set in the film is playing a nature documentary) but rather than alerting the authorities he gives chase himself, curiosity aroused. Leaving Brussels for Nice, Isabelle assumes a new name and a new bad eighties haircut and a new man, who soon falls out of a closet, dead. And now the Eye is actively concealing her crimes, helping her get away with murder, and financing his stalking with expenses paid by the parents of her previous victim.
This nutty confection was spilled from the pen of Marc Behm, an American who settled in France to write crime novels while occasionally offering stories to the movies. (He was, perhaps, a bit of a crook himself: he sold a plot to the Beatles for their second movie, Help!, which had to be ditched when it was discovered that Belmondo was doing the same story back in France: it was by Jules Verne. Undeterred, he pitched a replacement yarn about Ringo's ring, and this was used instead.)
Behm's twisted tale is adapted by the Audiards, father and son, and directed in a slick, commercial but also swooningly beautiful and highly imaginative style by Claude Miller, a former production manager to Truffaut whose approach is far more sweeping, swooping, and operatic than his mentor's. Adjani's entrance by a carousel, little more than a glimpse, is accompanied by the hurdy-gurdy music suddenly exploding from nowhere at just the right instant, a moment that feels instantly iconic.
Along the way we get Geneviève Page as the Eye's boss, and a very atypical cameo by Stephane Audran as the ugliest woman in France (despite hideous false teeth, she can't quite make you buy it, but it feels less cruel than casting some genuine unfortunate). But the film is claustrophobically concentrated on its two leads, and in its world of movie-ness: nothing is realistic here, everything is amped-up for maximum production values and maximum glitz, until we get to the grey industrial town where, we intuit, Adjani's story began.
The idea that the Eye both relates Adjani to his lost daughter and is romantically smitten with her is a very French one—other nations really aren't so comfortable with that kind of quasi-incest, but it runs all through French cinema. At least this film owns its inherent creepiness: the Eye is going to wind up a murderer as well as an accessory to murder, and this isn't going to end well for anybody.
Miller has lots of good weird stuff going for him here, and makes fine use of Adjani's glassy, glacial mode. He also has Serrault, who is a terrific comedian and allows the film to acknowledge the absurdity of its scenario (in this closed world, paradoxically jumping all over Europe, almost everyone is either killer or victim), his reactions beautifully timed as farce-comedy, but gradually shading into madness and tragedy. Cinema misses him.