3 stars (out of four)
In France, they take their thrillers seriously. "Le Petit Lieutenant" is a fine, taut, tough example of the realistic police drama, a genre that directors such as Bertrand Tavernier (in "L.627") and Maurice Pialat (in "Police"), among others, have occasionally turned into art.
At the center of this grim but compassionate film about cops and killers is Jalil Lespert as Antoine Derouere. He's the little lieutenant of the title, a recent police academy graduate from the provinces who has been assigned to Paris, where his buoyant optimism and boyish smiles make him stand out from his largely cynical and case-hardened comrades. He's befriended by a tough Moroccan vet, Solo (Roschdy Zem), in one of the film's best performances). Others ignore or ridicule him.
As an actor, Lespert is a charmer, and what happens to his Antoine ultimately chills us to the bone. An even more dominant figure in "Lieutenant," however, is Nathalie Baye, who won the French best actress Oscar (or Cesar) for her subtle, moving performance as Antoine's boss, Inspector Caroline ("Caro") Vaudieu. Caroline is an ex-alcoholic trying to recover her nerves on a desk job. She takes Antoine partly under her wing, because she sees in him, probably, a reflection of her more idealistic youth and of her own long-dead son (who would have been Antoine's age), before family tragedy and the bloody grind of her job drove her to alcoholism.
The catalyst for writer-director-actor Xavier Beauvois' drama is the brutal murder of a Polish immigrant by two Russians, a case that becomes increasingly savage as the police get nearer their prey. Beauvois and his crackerjack cast are really terrific at conveying the sometimes dull, sometimes deadly routine of these cops and also exposing their humanity. We tend to see the crooks as nuisances, enigmas or dangers. But Beauvois turns all of his police--including the right-wing racist Nicolas Morbe, whom the director plays--into human beings, sharply characterized.
Despite an obvious comparison to another dramatic lady cop, Helen Mirren's Jane Tennison in "Prime Suspect," the usually excellent Baye (a mainstay of French cinema since she made 1973's "Day for Night" for Francois Truffaut) seems an unlikely choice for this kind of tough, realistic movie. But she's an actress of such strength and sensitivity that she makes Caroline her own; her last sequence has an aching power. And Beauvois makes the milieu his own, too, showing us credible and affecting human beings caught up in a world that often reveals humanity at its worst.
'Le Petit Lieutenant'
Directed by Xavier Beauvois; written by Beauvois, Guillaume Breaud, Jean-Eric Troubat, with the collaboration of Cedric Anger; photographed by Caroline Champetier; edited by Martine Giordano; sets designed by Alain Tchillinguirian; produced by Why Not Productions. In French, with English subtitles. A Cinema Guild release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:50. No MPAA rating (Adult: violence, language and sexual themes).
Caroline - Nathalie Baye
Antoine - Jalil Lespert
Solo - Roschdy Zem
Louis - Antoine Chappey
Nicolas - Xavier Beauvois
Clermont - Jacques PerrinCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times