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Le petit lieutenant

Le petit lieutenant
Koch Lorber
2005 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 110 min. / Street Date April 10, 2007 / 29.98
Starring Nathalie Baye, Jalil Lespert, Roschdy Zem, Antoine Chappey, Jacques Perrin
Cinematography Caroline Champetier
Production Design Alain Tchilinguirian
Film Editor Martine Giordano
Written by Cédric Anger, Xavier Beauvois, Guillaume Bréaud, Jean-Eric Troubat
Produced by Pascal Caucheteux
Directed by Xavier Beauvois

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This top-rate French policier concentrates on the day-to-day functioning of a Paris detective unit, told through the experiences of a new Lieutenant from the provinces and a female commander making a comeback from personal problems. Director Xavier Beauvois concentrates on atmosphere and realism, making Le petit lieutenant fascinating viewing. Of special mention is a riveting performance from star Nathalie Baye (Day for Night, La Balance, The Return of Martin Guerre).


Police academy graduate Antoine Derouère (Jalil Lespert) asks for duty with the Paris detectives, even though he's promised his wife Julie (BÉrangère Allaux) that he'll stay with her in Normandy. Antoine loves big city police work and gets on well with his co-workers. Also assigned to the unit at the same time is a new leader, Commandant Caroline "Caro" Vaudieu (Nathalie Baye). A long-time veteran, Caro's drinking problem prevented her advancement but she prefers a front-line job. Antoine reminds Caro of the son she lost fifteen years before, and she's afraid that work tension might make her fall off the wagon again. The unit then takes on a murder case tracking down a pair of dangerous Russians. With only a few weeks on the job Antoine is eager for action.

Movies about the work and problems of police detectives are always good entertainment, even if the profession tends to be glamorized and the thrills exaggerated. Uncommon circumstances raise the adventure level of classic cop shows like Bullitt and Madigan, and the subgenre can stretch to accept exaggeration and excess (The French Connection; Dirty Harry). Conversely, the budget restrictions of television developed a taste for more realistic, lower-key police thrillers without major action scenes or big stars. Le petit lieutenant is somewhat reminiscent of the English Prime Suspect series with Helen Mirren's impressive female detective. This French film is even less stylized and straightforward. Set in the refreshingly different Parisian police system, Le petit lieutenant quickly enmeshes us in its characters' problems.

The script credited to Cédric Anger, Xavier Beauvois, Guillaume Bréaud and Jean-Eric Troubat doesn't bother with 'colorful' characterizations or waste time inventing petty conflicts between the cops. All of the detectives in Antoine's new unit are dedicated and fit for duty. They get drunk together without becoming abusive, respect the chain of command and decorate their walls with posters for Saving Private Ryan and Reservoir Dogs. Antoine confesses that he decided to become a cop by watching the movies.

Director Beauvois gives us glimpses of Antoine and Caro's intimate lives without sacrificing the film's neutral outlook. Antoine's good guy has been dishonest with his new wife by telling her he'd request an assignment near home. He selfishly expects her to quit her job and move to Paris. The movie doesn't try to pretend that their differences will be easily resolved or that other people really care; Caro dismisses the issue by suggesting that Antoine get his wife jealous to make her move to the city. She's a cop too, and is thinking about police work.

Nathalie Baye's Caro is a complicated case. A shrewd and capable unit leader, she also experiences feelings of doubt. She's unsure whether her need for companionship is a weakness to be avoided like the drinking problem she's kept at bay for two years. A judge that she once lived with (star Jacques Perrin) would like to renew the relationship but she feels both too old and perhaps too proud. She also develops an unsuspected emotional attachment to the young Antoine, whom she imagines her son might have been like, if he hadn't died at age seven.

The details of Parisian police work are fascinating, especially after decades of heavily stylized French policiers by the likes of Jean-Pierre Melville. When not scouring the city for information the cops wait behind desks and do drudge work like handling thugs in the drunk tank. Only one detective repeatedly balks at the workload, a detail that later becomes a major stumbling block. One of the more interesting observations is how basically polite and civil everyone is. Cops in American shows are often insolent, foul mouthed and borderline brutal, but the interviews and interrogations here are conducted with decorum and handshakes. Caro's men deal with plenty of suspicious undocumented foreigners, most of which cooperate. Nobody gets roughed up and the civilians don't scream about police brutality.

The key crime is an ordinary murder, not a big scandal or something that would make a splash in the papers. Although the character setup betrays the film's direction, events unwind in a way that holds our attention and makes every detail stand out. Antoine fights off nausea at his first autopsy and then compares the innards of the dead man to work by Mozart. Caro is emotionally unflappable under most conditions, even when facing Antoine's distraught wife, yet almost collapses while witnessing a baptism. Detective Solo (Roschdy Zem) is a French Moroccan proud to be working in the capitol and not bothered by resentment over his background. French cops apparently use American Army letter codes when spelling words over the phone: T = Tango, G = Golf, V = Victor, etc.. The city sounds sirens when a policeman dies in the line of duty.

By sticking to a realistic storyline Le petit lieutenant probably misses its opportunity to maximize audience involvement. The last showdown is purposely deprived of a big emotional catharsis. But the picture is consistent with its style and builds a strong feeling of narrative integrity. The memorable final shot is an extended close-up study of a face that ends with the character making direct eye contact with the audience. That almost always successful device links Xavier Beauvois' film to shows as disparate as Nights of Cabiria and The Glenn Miller Story.

Koch Lorber's DVD of Le petit lieutenant uses a good enhanced transfer with encoding that holds up in most shots. Wide views of the city tend to soften, as if the bit rate cannot handle the level of detail. It still looks fine. The audio is in 5.1 surround; the extras are a trailer and a photo gallery. Crime-film fans fed up with hyped action, overblown villains and ultra-cool heroes will enjoy this much more convincing drama.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Le petit lieutenant rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent -
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer, photo gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 19, 2007

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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