Le Petit Lieutenant Movie Review
Fresh out of police academy, Antoine (Jalil Lespert) has just signed up for assignment in Paris, leaving his wife in the suburbs. His excitement increases when he is introduced to his boss, Inspector Vaudieu (venerable Nathalie Baye), a legend who is returning to work after the death of her son and a long fight with alcoholism. The inspector takes Antoine and his supervisor Solo (Roschdy Zem) along to investigate a homicide, the murder of a bum that unravels into the hunt for two Russian thugs. Antoine gets paired with an older cop, Louis (a fantastic Antoine Chappey), and the inspector takes Solo as her partner as they both take statements, question witnesses, and slowly tiptoe towards the truth.
Things take a tragic turn in the last 30 minutes of the film, but the tone and mood of the film never stray from a concise and lively study of procedure as meditative action (if that makes any sense). Not completely unlike Michael Mann's recent Miami Vice, the intrigue is all in the details, the build-up. However, where Mann seduced the audience with the rapturous danger of undercover work, Beauvois steadily lays out the day-to-day workings and trappings of a normal police unit: taking a small toke with your boss, chasing down leads that turn up and taking on tasks that a file clerk would consider boring. The details, however, that these seemingly menial tasks bring out make the crime that the cops are investigating more nuanced and interesting.
What is even more radical and fascinating is the way that Beauvois denies us any identifying with the villain. We are refused the flamboyant, cold-hearted villain that has populated oh-so-many Michael Bay films. In fact, the murderer is only seen twice in the entire film. The denial of this perspective, the gleeful feeling of enjoying a person's torture or the cynical opinion of death as old-hat, leaves the audience only to contemplate the job and the routine that affords being a cop.
Beauvois, like he has in his other three films, shows an outstanding sense of imaginative structure and a rigorous talent with actors that keeps them at a deeply human level. Nathalie Baye illuminates the film with a reserved, enrapturing performance that echoes with a deep sense of melancholy and self-deprecation. The unsung hero of the film is Zem, who has to be both a mentor to Antoine and a steady partner for Vaudieu. Zem's strikingly subdued performance is laced in the film and gives a sense of balance between the seasoned Vaudieu and the rookie Antoine. Of course, this would all be for naught if Beauvois didn't orchestrate the film with a master's style and grace. You could call it anything but by-the-book.