The French actor/writer/director Xavier Beauvois is almost entirely unknown in this country, and the few here who have seen his work seem almost evenly divided between those who think he’s a pretentious hack and those who’d happily pass on to him the mantle of Renoir, Resnais, and Truffaut. Having just been exposed to him for the first time through his most recent film, Le Petit Lieutenant, I can see both sides of the argument. Lieutenant is a sly act of provocation, a repudiation of American filmmaking technique and of near-universal attitudes about cinematic violence. I can’t say I agree entirely with Beauvois’ sensibility, but he raises questions that are nonetheless worth considering.
The film is a quintessentially French take on a quintessentially American genre, a bouillabaisse of character types and plotlines familiar from countless movies and TV shows that Beauvois puts his own spin on by draining them of tension or emotion: He wrings the drama out of crime drama. The film’s pacing is loose and leisurely; it has no musical score to play up its conflicts; the performances are impeccably — not to say tiresomely — restrained and unhistrionic; and the rare moments of violence aren’t stylized or edited for sudden bursts of activity — they’re slow and clumsy, their stakes clear only from our knowledge of the plot, never from any inherent excitement. Beauvois’ refusal to overplay his hand is admirable in its way, but his moderation edges into a near-total lack of affect or interest, so that American audiences, trained into a Pavlovian response to swift action and overripe melodrama, must strain to find any significance in the goings-on. Only the occasional wry humor serves to humanize its characters.
The title refers to Antoine Derouère (Jalil Lespert) a recent graduate of a French police academy who’s eager to leave peaceful, low-crime Le Havre for the excitement of Paris. Though pushing 30, Antoine is the very picture of the wet-behind-the-ears kid who needs some wising up, and Lespert — who is handsome in a heavy-cheekboned, modelish way until you get a look at his goofy gap-toothed grin — makes him just about as callow as it’s possible to be without becoming unlikable. His new colleagues at the Parisian precinct house are all experienced cops, inured to both the excitement and the horrors of their work. They examine a corpse or slap a suspect around with the same rote disinterest as an office worker filling out an expense report, and their interactions have the casual antagonism of a group of frat brothers.
The police station and the film’s other locations are bedecked with posters from violent American films that run the gamut from Saving Private Ryan to Reservoir Dogs, emphasizing the tremendous difference between Beauvois’ restrained technique and that of most American filmmakers, reminding us that he refuses to make violence either noble or sexy. Antoine confesses at one point that he was drawn to police work by watching movies, and his giddy excitement when he gets to help corral an unruly drunk or, especially, when he zips through traffic with his siren blaring, is that of a kid getting to play cops and robbers for real. His one act of daring is depicted not as brave but as reckless and foolhardy, the impetuous action of boy who doesn’t realize that police work isn’t a game. (It is, I suppose, a relatively minor technical matter, but very distracting to me, that amid all this emphatic realism the color of all the blood we see is that Play-Doh red familiar from ’70s giallo.)
The film’s initial focus on Antoine and his gradual — wait, I mean grindingly slow — initiation into the grim and often dull realities of police work led me to expect a plotless docudrama along the lines of 1972’s The New Centurions, but Lieutenant, whether it means to or not, eventually does stumble into a plot, just shy of the one-hour mark, and with it an entirely different focus. The film’s real star, we finally discover, is not the title character but Nathalie Baye as Commandant Caroline Vaudieu, who selects Antoine for her team of detectives (Baye also starred in Beauvois’ previous film, Selon Matthieu). Drawn and tight-lipped, her beauty faded but elegance and commanding presence fully intact, Vaudieu is a recovering alcoholic haunted by family tragedy and professional disgrace — a Francophone Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison (Baye even somewhat resembles Helen Mirren) without even Tennison’s oh-so-rare displays of emotion. Vaudieu takes a half-hearted interest in mentoring Antoine and is at one point reunited with a former paramour, but her only compelling relationship is with a bottle of gin, and more than once we see her staring at one as if spying an old lover who’d spurned her.
Lieutenant examines police work, and particularly cinematic depictions of police work, with a dark, existentialist questioning of its glory and even its inherent value. What small victories as there are here, it would be generous to even call Pyrrhic. In the process of catching two low-level thugs, one cop is killed and another sees his career destroyed, while there’s never any doubt that catching these hoods is about as effective as killing a couple of roaches with your shoe — look closer and you’ll see a million others like them. Still, it’s their job to keep trying, and most cops aren’t much given to introspection. It’s Vaudieu — I suppose either because she’s a woman or because she’s older, or maybe both — who bears the weight of Beauvois’ philosophizing. At the film’s close, she looks into the camera, tears welling in her eyes but refusing to fall, as if we in the audience might be able to tell her what it’s all about, whether any of what went before was worth the struggle. I could only throw my hands up and mutter to the screen, “Oh honey, I wish I knew.”
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Le Petit Lieutenant / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | February 8, 2007 | Comments ()