Le Petit lieutenant (Beauvois, 2006)

Le Petit lieutenant tells the story of a young man named Antoine, freshly graduated from the French Police Academy, who seeks out a position with the Special Crimes Unit in Paris. They handle 80% of that city’s criminal cases and Antoine is drawn to what he thinks will be a high octane job in the vein of Serpico or Se7en (the police department office is littered with movie posters of the like). When Antoine arrives, so is a new commanding officer named Caroline Vaudieu, fresh from a boring desk job. It turns out both of director Xavier Beauvois’ main characters have requested this unit and their respective stories will be forever linked. So begins a film obsessed with process, a policer with little “action” in the Hollywood sense of the word, but filled to the brim with character. As Antoine begins his role as an detective, a fresh face seeing everything for the first time, Caroline is having a rebirth of sorts. She is a recovering alcoholic, still grieving from the loss of her young son to meningitis. As Antoine grapples with his new and confounding environment, Caroline grapples with her past demons. This parallel makes up the first half of Le Petit lieutenant, a fascinating look at a crossroads shared by two vastly different people. When violence does finally strike in the middle of the film, the lives of these characters fracture like a broken mirror, leading both viewer and character down a completely logical but devastating road. Beauvois’ methodical camera movement, the absence of a score, and realist mise-en-scene come to represent something greater than the individual. His minimalist aesthetic choices focus on the pain felt by a group when one has departed. He seems to be asking, what happens when the collective breaks down and the impressions and new friendships of this community are destroyed in one moment? Well, it’s all about the process. Much like the shared police work of each character, patterns of their personal lives becomes more and more apparent. Le Petit lieutenant isn’t interested in the glorification of police work or the underworld it pursues, just the consequences of languishing in that very ideology. In Beauvois’ world, circumstance and chance dominate all moments of time, both in the revelatory periods and the horrific ones. It’s great to see a film willing to show the heartbreaking similarities, as well as the differences, within such frighteningly personal turning points.

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