Shot mostly in an unromantic but always recognizable Paris, Le Petit Lieutenant doesn’t show anything you wouldn’t anticipate. Indeed, it almost seems as if director and co-writer Xavier Beauvois thinks it would be a betrayal to do so. Charting the overlapping careers of two very different cops—flics, the French call them—the film deliberately advances toward a pair of inevitable turning points: one in which the earnest rookie encounters a situation he can’t handle, and another in which the recovering-alcoholic veteran reaches for the gin.
The action begins at a military-style graduation at the police academy, where Antoine (Jalil Lespert) chooses to take a position in Paris. Antoine is married to a schoolteacher who has no intention of moving from their home in Le Havre, so the new graduate is alone in a new job and a new city. That’s just how Beauvois wants him: Arriving from a placid town that averages one murder a year, Antoine is thrust into detective work and downscale Paris.
Beauvois strives to make Antoine (along with the viewer) feel overwhelmed: Good to meet you, have a cup of coffee, check out these bloody crime-scene photos, and watch the pathologist open a fresh corpse’s skull with an electric saw. It’s not unlike what American TV crime shows do—without the flashy graphics and tidy conclusions.
Antoine’s new boss, though no beginner, is also new to the division. Introduced quickly, and trailed by efficient bursts of gossipy chatter, Caroline (Nathalie Baye) is a “Madame Supercop” who “hasn’t touched a drop in two years.” (She’s a regular at AA meetings, and, yes, they do recite the eminently small-town American “serenity prayer” in French.) In addition to the strain of being a police commander—and the only woman in the squad—Caroline also has an unhappy personal history. She, too, lives by herself.
While largely withholding their emotions from the viewer, Antoine and Caroline become close as they work on an incident that quickly expands into a major case. Two guys—Russians, someone thinks—have made a habit of robbing homeless immigrants and professors, then dumping them in canals, sometimes to die. Tracking Pavel and Piotr leads to Burgundy and back, and finally to a major mistake. Just as in so many American cop and horror movies, the bad thing happens when someone rashly goes in without backup. That’s only to be expected, yet it’s handled so naturally that it doesn’t seem contrived. Neither does what follows, which provides Caroline a grim sort of satisfaction but no catharsis.
The policier is hardly a new genre, and Baye—playing a hooker, not a cop—was in one of the best post–Jean-Pierre Melville examples of the form, 1982’s La Balance. Le Petit Lieutenant, however, plays less like a cop flick than as the latest example of contemporary French cinema’s fascination with work. There is action but much more talk, and none of it is high-blown. Being a Paris flic, to Beauvois’ eye, is tedious, risky, and ethically dubious. As one guy explains, with barely a glance toward a colleague of Moroccan descent, the job is essentially “locking up blacks and Arabs.”
Virtuoso documentary-style cinematographer Caroline Champetier, who also photographed Benoît Jacquot’s breathless A Tout de Suite, gets in close and follows the action like a battle-tested, news-video shooter. Add lived-in performances from Baye, Lespert, and the rest of the cast, and the film registers as exemplary in everything except scale. It seems just a little too small—even if that’s the point. After insisting that being a cop is just a job, Le Petit Lieutenant can’t quite handle the emotions when that job requires more than the usual workaday sacrifices.