Police procedurals never go out of style, but rarely do they cut as close to the bone as Le Petit Lieutenant. Set in modern-day Paris, it tells us everything we want to know about how the good guys catch the bad guys. But it also lets us know how boring it can all be. For every brilliant deduction there are hours of spadework, tracking down leads, making phone calls. It's kind of like being a firefighter: You wait and wait, and then suddenly your life's on the line. To its credit, Le Petit Lieutenant isn't afraid to make us wait as well. And while we're sitting there, waiting for something to happen, we get to know the characters ' not well, but well enough. They're good at their jobs. Most have been around a while. But one of them, dubbed 'le petit lieutenant,' just started. In fact, he's so green he still gets a kick out of using the police siren.
But the movie isn't only about the rookie, whom Jalil Lespert endows with just the right amount of eager-beaver charm. It's about his boss, Inspector Vaudieu, who happens to be a woman. As played by Natalie Baye, Inspector Vaudieu exudes both competence and confidence. Of course, she can't help but remind us of Jane Tennison, the embattled police inspector that Helen Mirren played on Prime Suspect. But Inspector Vaudieu doesn't seem to have any trouble getting her male subordinates to take orders from a female. Her problem is more personal: the death of a son, which sent her into an alcoholic tailspin. Now she's back on the force. And the body of a Polish ÃmigrÃ, beaten to death, has just been pulled out of the Seine. And le petit lieutenant, it occurs to her, is about the age her son would have been.
Their scenes together are nothing special, which is what is so special about them. Director Xavier Beauvois, who co-wrote the script, underplays everything, so that the big moments, when they do arrive, seem downright huge. Meanwhile, we sift through the movie for clues to the characters' inner lives. Antoine, the rookie, later tells his father about witnessing his first autopsy. All he could think of, he says, while watching a brain get extracted and dropped on the scale, was Mozart. How could all that music come from there? And we realize that Antoine, for all his cops-and-robbers braggadocio, has a poetic side. If Tom Cruise had played this part, he'd have signaled that poetic side with every fiber of his being. Lespert just lets it float to the surface. Likewise, Baye refuses to force anything, just allows us to infer the pain the inspector's in.
The movie's emotional reserve speaks volumes.