There are 2.1 million stories in the naked city of Paris. Appellate Judge James A. Stewart reviews one of them.
"This is reality, not police college."
If you've seen Jules Dassin's landmark 1948 crime film The Naked City, you already have an idea of what you're going to see in Le Petit Lieutenant. It's a police procedural that offers glimpses into the lives of a lonely veteran commander and a bright young cop who still has a lot to learn. Instead of postwar New York City, it's set against the backdrop of modern Paris, whether it be drab eateries, city parks, or tree-lined avenues with rotating billboards. There are even pursuits which echo the 1948 movie's subway and tenement chases.
If you've seen enough police procedurals in the movies or on TV, you might be renaming this one CSI: Paris or Law & Order: Seine Victims Unit around the hour mark.
You might be thinking that you've got this one figured out, but there's a twist in Le Petit Lieutenant, a solid 2005 police procedural from France. It won't set all your expectations on their ears, but it makes for a more dramatic, deeper police drama.
Facts of the Case
The graduates of the French police college stand in a room, watching the options narrow on a blackboard as they choose their first postings, one by one. Among them is Antoine Derouere (Jalil Lespert, Virgil), who told his girlfriend he'd be staying in Normandy but has changed his mind at the last minute, deciding to start his career in Paris. "Does an archaelogist choose Calais?" he'll say to her later.
Antoine quickly forms friendships with the members of his section, including Commander Caroline Vaudieu (Nathalie Baye, Catch Me If You Can), who runs her unit like an iron mother hen. Vaudieu, known as "Mrs. Supercop," advises Antoine on his problems with his girlfriend and brings him along on investigations from the start. He's also learning about her problems—she's a recovering alcoholic who lost a son to meningitis. It seems he'd be about the age of Antoine, who she calls "my young lieutenant," by now.
When Antoine recognizes the man who washed up along the Seine as a homeless man who'd spent time in the lockup, "Columbo Jr." is on the trail of two Russians who escaped from jail in their home country. A surprise turn in the investigation takes its toll on Vaudieu, who might just go back to the bottle.
From the start, there's a certain drab repetition to Le Petit Lieutenant. The regimented lines as the young recruits pick their postings give way to the regimented lines as they march at graduation. Antoine's bored gazing out a train window gives way to his first gaze at the Paris skyline. Will he soon be bored with la ville nue? His first encounter with a supply sergeant—"Your magazines. Your bullets. Your gun."—has that just-the-facts-ma'am quality that puts Antoine in his plodding place. He may be a whiz with the computer, but Antoine's got a lot of legwork ahead of him.
Still, the story, which follows both Antoine and Mrs. Supercop, has moments that pack a little extra punch from the start. Early on, when Antoine's standing by the telephone, he takes a tour of the police station—complete with "Keep out. Blood drying" sign on one door—and winds up celebrating a bust with the Drug Squad, whose members chide him for not picking their more exciting department. When he first takes a spin in a police car, siren wailing, Antoine yells a triumphant "Paris is mine!" In a less likely moment, Antoine and Mrs. Supercop share a joint in a Paris park as a young man tells them to watch out because the place is full of cops. Jalil Lespert plays Antoine as bright and determined, yet young enough to still get a thrill from pounding the pavement. His introduction to police work draws viewers in even when the case at hand seems routine.
However, the movie really belongs to Nathalie Baye as "Mme. Supercop." There are plenty of strong performances throughout, but Baye holds the movie together. She doesn't do long speeches but brings her character out through small notes that let us know what she's going through as she goes back to the bottle, visits an old flame, or tells Antoine about her son's death. Unlike Antoine, she no longer gets excited about the job. "A big catch—a serial killer, say—is fantastic but it's rare," she tells her young lieutenant.
Writer/director Xavier Beauvois sets up his police procedural with the methodical quality of an officer doing legwork. Everything seems to be falling into its formula place, just like The Naked City or countless other police dramas. Halfway through, though, the movie heads in a new direction, knocking down what Beauvois spent the first hour setting up. The movie then turns into a character study for Baye as Vaudieu faces a crisis. Baye handled it well enough to deservedly win that Cesar Award for Best Actress that's touted on the DVD cover.
Paris, whether drab or scenic, comes alive in the movie's cinematography, and it comes across well in the transfer. The sound, though, is excellent, with the city's ambient noise helping to underscore the drama in Vaudieu's life.
As for extras, you get a theatrical trailer that introduces the situation while thankfully avoiding spoilers and a photo gallery that seems largely redundant.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I've avoided discussion of the second half of the movie here, which has some of the movie's strongest moments, to avoid spoiling it. A movie like this one that relies on misdirection to build dramatic impact is compelling on first viewing, but may lose something on repeat viewing.
If you like police drama and can cope with subtitles, Le Petit Lieutenant is worth your attention. In addition to a surprising plot twist, Nathalie Baye gives a performance that's surprisingly compelling.
Not guilty. An archaeologist might not choose Calais, but a cops-and-robbers fan would choose Le Petit Lieutenant.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
• Theatrical Trailer
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