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Le Petit Lieutenant

It’s hard not to be reminded of Jane Tennison, the character Helen Mirren played on the much-lauded British series Prime Suspect (you may have seen its final episode last weekend) while watching French star Natalie Baye in Le Petit Lieutenant. Her chief inspector in the Paris police has a drinking problem, is without a man, and worries about whether she’s getting old and weary and should pack it in. She even looks a little similar to Tennison. And I thought the French only copied American movies! In fact, Xavier Beauvois’ police melodrama is in some measure an updated throwback to naturalist-style post-war American police dramas like Jules Dassin’s The Naked City. Le Petit Lieutenant is more graphically violent, and clinically detailed about crime’s consequences. Despite a Gallic overlay of tragic sentiment, it’s Anglo-American origins are clear. The small lieutenant of the title is actually a strapping young officer named Antoine (Jalil Lespert), newly minted at the national policy academy. A rural native of Le Havre, he opts for a job in Paris because of the greater opportunities for crime fighting. He’s assigned to the general crime unit headed by Baye’s character, and soon he’s involved in an investigation of a series of robberies and murders that seem linked. The first half of the movie is concerned with recording the routine operations of the police as they pursue their duties, and in observing Antoine’s acclimation to the work and his colleague’s ways. It also follows him as he tries to resolve a problem with his pretty young wife who doesn’t want to move from Le Harve. Gradually, attention shifts to Baye’s lovely, haunted inspector. The veteran star ably embodies the movie’s underlying romantically melancholic spirit. But at heart Le Petit Lieutenant is a slick, methodical, swift-moving procedural—so quick, indeed, that some of the details of the cops’ efforts to break the case may get away from those who fix only on the movie’s interesting look at the human element in police work.