Le Petit Lieutenant

March, 2006, Thriller


Hollywood often treats members of its creative community with cruel neglect, but none more so than actresses over a certain age. Meaningful roles for talented artists such as Jessica Lange, Meryl Streep and Glenn Close are as rare as shooting stars; what a pity that scripts which could employ their talents just don't emerge from the word processors of American screenwriters. 

By contrast, French filmmakers find vehicles for that nation's best actresses in the 5th, 6th and even 7th decades of their lives as Catherine Deneuve and Nathalie Baye so stunningly demonstrate. And the range of roles provided them is wonderful, as this first-rate crime drama demonstrates. In it, Baye portrays an alcoholic police officer, just back from a leave of absence to treat her addiction, whose first assignment places her in charge of a Parisian squad of tough male cops assigned to solve a brutal murder. Petit's storyline moves with an escalating pulse towards a climatic shoot-out with Baye at the heart of the action, at once stunningly attractive, painfully isolated and thoroughly credible as a determined and utterly feminine woman. The film's an exciting jolt of energy and Baye, at 58, is as stunningly attractive as ever.

She plays Commandant Caroline "Caro" Vaudieu, a career policewoman who returns to the streets of France's capital to blend a newly minted product of the police academy into her squad of cynical street cops. When the battered corpse of a bum is pulled from one of the city's canals, Caro and her crew are assigned to investigate. The victim, obviously homeless, evokes little interest or sympathy from these detectives; most of Caro's squad wants to just go through the motions of an inquiry, but she insists on pushing every possible lead, if for no other reason than to demonstrate to her skeptical superiors that their decision to bring her back on active duty wasn't a mistake. With painstaking, (and often boring) thoroughness, the team pieces together random facts about the murdered man which lead them to yet another violent crime and the growing conviction that a pair of foreign migrant-workers may have taken up residence in the city with the intention of preying on its more vulnerable citizens. Clues turn into leads, which turn into names, faces and finally suspects; then the hunt begins, bringing with it the possibility of lethal danger. 

As Caro, Baye provides a wonderful mixture of loneliness, affection for her work and steely determination. Without raising her voice or mimicking the testosterone-driven behavior of her subordinates, she exudes the strength of leadership required to push the investigation to completion. But success comes with a terrible price tag to which the movie's final shot--of Baye's haggard, questioning face--pays tribute. Fans of Baye's earlier performances are rewarded here with a superb example of her talent.   

As written and directed by Xavier Beauvois, a veteran French actor & filmmaker, Petit radiates veracity; everything about it, from the casual bigotry of its policemen to the bureaucratic machinery of its judicial system to the street sounds of its locations suggests the kind of world where violence is never more than one closed door away. Sound editor Emmanuel Augeard and his crew deserve special recognition for being able to deliver so many authentic background noises with such eerie, authentic fidelity to the action; file cabinet doors "thunk" with muffled finality, water cooler conversations seep into squad meetings at police headquarters, taxi horns interrupt the silent progress of two members of Caro's team as they cross a street to interview a potential witness…all of this with just enough volume to make the each sound effect contribute to the overall impact of individual scenes without ever inappropriately intruding into them.

Baye won a Cesar, (France's equivalent of our Oscars) as best actress for her work in this film and Beauvois was nominated for his writing and direction, winning in the latter category at The Venice Film Festival. If the final scene owes a bit too much to Francois Truffaut's classic 400 Blows, the director should be forgiven for borrowing from one of his country's masters; with this movie, he stands ready to enter that category himself.

If this had been a Hollywood production, the lead would have been male and in all likelihood, the violence much more graphic; Beauvois respects his audience here and as a result, produces an intelligent, exciting thriller with a commanding female presence. The result is tres, tres bon.

This one is sure to make the rounds of theaters here in the U.S. that exhibit foreign language films--be sure to see it when it shows up in your neighborhood.

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