A Tale of Loss

petit_lieutenant.jpgA French film about cops? Sounds promising. But unfortunately Xavier Beauvois’s Le Petit Lieutenant doesn’t deliver on its initial promise. It opens at a large police academy graduation ceremony, full of pomp and military precision. Antoine (played with charm and energy by Jalil Lespert) is in the class and eager to move to Paris for his first assignment in a detective unit. Normandy, where he has grown up, is just too dull—too few crimes. Meanwhile, Caroline Vaudieu (the lovely Nathalie Baye) is returning to the force after a couple of years dealing with her drinking problem.

What we might expect is the development of a unique relationship between these two, the talented long-time professional who has been off her game and the “young Lieutenant” (which is probably the best translation of the film’s title). And we do see them starting to bond, including even sharing a joint one night out by the Seine. We also watch her at AA meetings and him finding a rented room, going out on cases, hanging with the guys. But as time passes and violent crimes occur, the film’s energy falters. Instead of erring in the direction of American films—too much obvious tension, too many car chases, endless screaming, shooting and jumping from roof to roof—Beauvois errs in the direction of underwhelming us with careful procedural detail (including the visceral shots of an autopsy so favored on the various CSI television series) and with daily lives veering off course for reasons that are not made clear.

The film has a visual beauty typical of the French, and evocations of mood that are nuanced, but ultimately, as my film-going buddy announced, “it wasn’t interesting.”

And that’s the case despite the excellent acting. It’s the script and pace that are at fault, and since Beauvois is both director and screen writer, we must blame him. Baye gives a very moving performance as the burnt-out policewoman, reminding me several times of Helen Mirren’s brilliant Jane Tennison on the BBC series Prime Suspect. These two female characters share a lone position of power among male colleagues in a very macho profession; they get respect but they rarely belong. Remarks are made behind their backs. Their private lives are typically empty. The lone shot of these women drinking coffee, or sitting quietly on a bed, establishes their solitary status. Both women also share a definitely middle-aged female beauty, minus the botox—slender and alluring, but with faces well lived in.

Inspector Tennison is a little more tart and aggressive than Inspector Vaudieu, whose sadness is always just barely below the surface; where Tennison is angry, Vaudieu is restrained. But overall Prime Suspect, at its best, was more driven, more exciting, and also deeper than Le Petit Lieutenant, with more compelling and colorful minor characters and storylines.

Ultimately, Le Petit Lieutenant plays out as a mood picture rather than a “crime thriller,” the category Beauvois lays claim to. In avoiding the “clichés of the genre,” which he set as a goal, Beauvois has unfortunately lost the momentum we yearn for on the screen. It may be real, but does it hold us? When does subtlety turn to ennui? That said, there are certainly several effective scenes: the police unit in their favorite bar, drinking and telling stories and getting wonderfully raucous; a Moroccan-born detective at home with his family discussing his complicated attitudes as an outsider; the young lieutenant with his wife back in Normandy, pleading with her to move to Paris; and Vaudieu at the end of the film in a stunning solitary walk on the beach at Nice close to sunset, her face revealing deep despair. The only sound is that of the waves, and yet we can almost hear, with no voice-over, the voice in her head asking, “What is the meaning of it all?” To capture such existential anguish is a gift, and one more valued by European film-makers. - Victoria Sullivan

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Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.

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Great film

This film had some interesting and unexpected plot twists. Great posting

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