In France as here in the U.S., the policier, or cop film, is ground well trod, a genre that is hard to approach in a fresh way. Director Xavier Beauvois's attempt to do just that in Le Petit Lieutenant opened in France in 2005 and in New York last fall, but it has finally come to Washington, for a limited, exclusive engagement at E Street Cinema.
The story, co-written by Beauvois and a handful of others, follows a team of cops in Paris, led by veteran detective Commandant Caroline Vaudieu (Nathalie Baye). A recovering alcoholic who lost her young son to meningitis, Vaudieu becomes attached to a rookie lieutenant on her squad, Antoine Derouère (Jalil Lespert). Although it is stated only obliquely, Vaudieu begins to think of Derouère as her son, as if he had not died but had grown up. We understand this without any misty montages of Vaudieu's son and without any direct commentary from the characters. With the same subtlety that has marked some of his other films, like Nord and N'oublie pas que tu vas mourir, we know this simply by the way that the story unfolds.
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Like many directors, Beauvois is a dedicated lover of old films. If you notice the background of many shots, the police offices and the cops' favorite nearby bar are decorated with posters of classic films about cops and criminals, like Les 400 coups, Un Flic, Once upon a Time in America. Yes, Le Petit Lieutenant recalls film noir and classic police detective flicks, but Beauvois prefers to show the life of French cops as they really are, without the glamour. Mostly these police detectives wait around a lot, listening for the phone to ring. When they do get a case, we see them fumbling for leads, asking the same questions again and again, and making mistakes. They drink heavily (a police stereotype in France, one that is based at least somewhat on fact) at their favorite bar after hours, and even at a special bar in a room at the precinct (also reportedly true).
Beauvois's portrait of cops, flaws and all, is multifaceted, slow-moving, and fair. The director apparently became used to the lifestyle after filming it for so long. During last year's Cannes Film Festival, Beauvois was arrested for using a false police ID to get out of a ticket for illegally parking his scooter. The fake ID turned out to be a prop from Le Petit Lieutenant. All of the characters are beautifully detailed, but principally our sympathy lies with two of them. As the naïve rookie Derouère, Jalil Lespert represents the idealism of the men and women who go into law enforcement. His open face and broad smile are as transparent as his intentions.
Nathalie Baye's moving rendition of the world-weary Commandant Vaudieu, whom the cops describe as superflic, fille d'un superflic ("the supercop, daughter of a supercop"), won her the Best Actress category at the César Awards (France's Oscars) last year. When the unit ends up in Nice (all good crime films in France do) to close their case, Beauvois concludes the film, in a moment recalling Les 400 Coups, with Vaudieu walking on the beach. Her face has been a map of cares throughout the film, and here washed in Mediterranean light, she finally turns and looks directly into the camera. At last, we know her.