Le Petit Lieutenant

February 7, 2010By Heidi EllisonArchive

Paris Police Blues

Nathalie Baye plays a “super-flic.”

Cop stories – we’ve seen a million of them on TV and in the movies. What new take on the theme could possibly be left? Director Xavier Beauvois’s Le Petit Lieutenant manages to find one, making a low-key film that doesn’t try to copy the masters of the genre, the Americans, but instead takes a human, realistic approach to the subject.

Antoine, the young lieutenant of the title, appealingly played by Jalil Lespert, is a rube from Normandy fresh out of the academy. He requests a post in the big city, where he finds himself working in the crime division under Caroline Vaudieu (Nathalie Baye), who is touched by his puppy-dog enthusiasm and eagerness to please, which he tries to hide with a thin veneer of tough-guy cop.

Caroline, a recovering alcoholic described as a “super-cop” by her superior, has just returned to the job after a two-year leave and is still suffering from the pain of losing her son years before.

The case the film focuses on begins with the murder of a street person. The trail slowly leads to the bad guys, two Russian thugs who think nothing of killing anyone who gets in their way. The chase is on (there are no car chases in this very Parisian film, much of it filmed around the Canal Saint Martin, but a foot chase does take place in Nice).

While there are a couple of gratuitous and overlong scenes, the film has many more nice touches. The military precision of the police academy graduation ceremony shown at the beginning of the film, for example, contrasts

nicely with the messy reality of the job that follows.

The racism of the French police, a hot topic after the recent troubles in the suburbs, is acknowledged (though minimized): the only minority cop, who is of Moroccan origin, is introduced as looking “like one of our customers,” and another cop tells the sensitive petit lieutenant, who says he doesn’t like seeing animals in cages, that he’d “better get used to it. You’re paid to put blacks and Arabs in cages.”

One great thing about French films – and perhaps a reason why they don’t usually win much international success – is that the actors are not all gorgeous. Being ordinary-looking or getting on in age does not necessarily relegate an actor to oblivion (or character roles). Lespert and Baye (who is getting rave reviews for her understated performance) are just right in this film.

Heidi Ellison

© 2005 Paris Update

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