LE PETIT LIEUTENANT (Xavier Beauvois, 2005)

Co-written (along with Cédric Anger, Guillaume Bréaud, Jean-Eric Troubat) and expertly directed by Xavier Beauvois, Le petit lieutenant is a police procedural that transcends the genre. It humanizes a homicide unit, its commander and other members, and does so with a bare minimum of soap opera. The whole thing is done in a restrained, detailed and realistic manner, and is convincingly punctuated by horrifying violence.
     After a couple of years away, Caroline Vaudieu (Nathalie Baye, best actress César), a recovering alcoholic, has returned to command of her Parisian unit. She takes under her wing a young rookie (Jalil Lespert, better here than in Laurent Cantet’s Human Resources, 1999), who is perhaps the same age as her son would have been had he lived. The latter died of meningitis when he was 7, and Antoine Derouère, “le petit lieutenant,” brings her fresh and overwhelming grief, rocking her sobriety during an investigation of a series of random street murders.
     Beauvois has wrought a credibly forlorn film. At one point a bar patron bemoans that Paris is no longer Paris, meaning, at least in part, that it is increasingly less white. (One of the cops, even, is Arab.) It is a film in which life slips by and slips away, sometimes in blood. With a nod to Federico Fellini’s great Nights of Cabiria (1956), at the end “Caro” tentatively seeks anonymous us (the camera) out; but, unlike vulnerable Cabiria, who is reassuring us that she will prevail, or at least try to prevail, the commandant, fragile if impeccable, is hoping that we somehow can assuage her terrible loneliness. She doesn’t dare ask us what she knows we cannot do.
     Apparently the role of the commandant was originally conceived as a man. The full draught of femininity that Baye brings to it without compromising the character’s professional competence refreshes. Jane Tennison, look out!
     The cinematographer is Caroline Champetier, who a quarter-century ago richly mined a Brussels night in Chantal Äkerman’s brilliant Toute une nuit (1982).

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