Part police procedural and part character study of the camaraderie of detective work, Xavier Beauvois evokes the unsentimentality and objective, cinéma vérité-styled painstaking observation of Maurice Pialat – with similar conflicted results – in his latest film Le Petit Lieutenant. The titular rookie investigator is Antoine (Jalil Lespert), a prototypical provincial cop from Normandy eager to experience the adrenaline rush of metropolitan crime busting. Assigned under the tutelage of the well-respected, second-generation “supercop” Caroline Vaudieu (Nathalie Baye), Antoine becomes closely involved with the seemingly routine investigation into the death of a vagrant – later identified as a Polish migrant worker – found floating in the river after he recognizes the victim from an earlier encounter at the police station for public intoxication. As in Pialat’s oeuvre, the success of the film ultimately resides in the strength of the performance of the actors, and Baye’s role as Vaudieu is complexly rendered (she received Best Actress at the 2006 Césars) as a recovering alcoholic who has declined promotion into the higher ranks of law enforcement to instead return to the “real world” of field work after two years of sobriety – a nuanced performance that seems particularly in sharp contrast to the almost superficial characterization of Antoine as an immature, impetuous thrill seeker. Perhaps driven to drink by the unexpected death of her only child – who would have been Antoine’s age had he survived – Vaudieu’s relationship with the idealistic young detective is protective and intimate, yet necessarily distanced (a subtly evident demarcation between personal and professional life that is illustrated in her physical separation from her colleagues’ after hour drinking parties, invariably leaving early after finishing a glass of soda water). Beauvois’ approach is systematic, organic, episodic, and precise in execution, which lends itself to a certain degree of aesthetic clinicality and emotional disconnection, to create a competent, if coolly detached policier.
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