A man alone

Jalil Lespert portrays a rookie police detective, posted to Paris, in “Le Petit Lieutenant.” Xavier Beauvois co-wrote and directed the film. (Cinema Guild)

"Le Petit Lieutenant" is a quiet powerhouse of a film, an implacable, uncompromising French police drama, both old-fashioned and modern, that underlines the reasons impeccably made crime stories do so well on screen.

Nominated for six Césars, including best picture and deservedly winning best actress for the great veteran Nathalie Baye, "Le Petit Lieutenant" is successful on two parallel levels.

Perhaps because co-writer and director Xavier Beauvois is also an actor (he has a key supporting role), "Le Petit Lieutenant" is an involving character drama before it is anything else, a film that is determined to give us a real sense of what the lives of a group of elite Parisian police officers are like on the most intimate level.

But because the police do what they do, "Le Petit Lieutenant" inevitably deals as well with death and crimes that have to be solved, with human behavior at moments of extreme and painful crisis.

That Beauvois' film adroitly combines both strands is due to the filmmaker's determination, in his own words, "to be scrupulously faithful to the reality of a police investigation and to use all I had seen" in several months spent following a French police captain through his daily life.

What this means specifically is that "Le Petit Lieutenant" has been shot in a crisp, purposeful style and that the director has insisted on low-key, unforced acting from all his players. This is filmmaking that indicates more than overemphasizes, that understands the value of naturalism above all things.

Just as welcome, and just as rare, "Le Petit Lieutenant" is in no kind of rush or hurry. Beauvois is sure enough of his story to let things play out on their own terms. Given how deliberately this film moves, how moving it turns out to be may seem surprising, but it is the former that has led to the latter.

The film begins with Antoine, the young lieutenant of the title, graduating from the national police academy in his native Normandy. He gets the posting he wants, as a plainclothes detective in exciting Paris, though it means leaving his young teacher wife behind.

Jalil Lespert, who made a memorable debut as the star of Laurent Cantet's "Human Resources," is an excellent choice for Antoine. He gives us a well-mannered young man who seems plenty capable as a police officer but also has a likability, even a naive sweetness that we don't always see behind a badge.

"Le Petit Lieutenant" concentrates first on immersing us in the dailiness of Antoine's life as the new guy at the Paris station, trying to fit in. We go with him as he's assigned his weapon and rents a single-guy room to live in. And we meet the other people in his unit, in effect his family away from home.

There is Solo (Roschdy Zem, Cannes best actor winner for "Indigènes"), a Moroccan who's had trouble being accepted. There's the right-wing Morbe (the director himself) and Mallet (Antoine Chappey), who's always looking for an easy way out. And then there is his boss, Chief Inspector Caroline Vaudieu (Baye), who is a film all by herself.

An extremely experienced officer who really knows her job, the inspector is a recovering alcoholic who is just returning to life on the street but still bears the scars of the experiences that led her to drink. With her careworn face and eyes that have seen more than anyone should, Baye brings this complex, distraught character to exceptionally vivid and moving life.

Gradually, as Antoine gets his footing under the inspector's sympathetic but watchful eyes, "Le Petit Lieutenant" shifts its focus to the cases to which he and the unit are assigned, specifically the murder of a homeless man whose body is found in the Seine.

Here, once again, director Beauvois emphasizes the minutiae of police work, the boredom-inducing checking and rechecking of facts, the ever-so-slow accumulation of evidence that leads the police to feel the futility of their jobs.

But, always lurking behind the tedium is the sense of impending danger, the idea that it's in the nature of police work that things could explode at any moment. With its exceptional restraint and psychological complexity paying full dividends, "Le Petit Lieutenant" makes that contrast and its consequences unforgettable.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

'Le Petit Lieutenant'

MPAA rating: Unrated

A Cinema Guild release. Director Xavier Beauvois. Screenplay Beauvois, Guillaume Bréaud, Jean-Eric Troubat. Producer Pascal Caucheteux. Director of photography Caroline Champetier. Editor Martine Giordano. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

Exclusively at Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills (310) 274-6869; Laemmle's Playhouse, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena (626) 844-6500.