Saturday, January 20, 2007

Un Bonne Flic

(Xavier Beauvois, France, 2005, unrated, 110 mins.)

Un flic = French for a cop.

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Antoine and Solo take a ride

I love the police procedural. It's been around for ages and shows no signs of stopping. As long as there are cops and criminals, the form will persist. And it
lends itself as gracefully to the big screen as to the small, especially on cable,
where writers, directors, and actors can take the time to get the details right,
like on HBO's The Wire. Police procedurals appeal to those who truly believe the
devil is in the details. Take away the details and a police procedural becomes
just another crime drama, a term so vague as to be almost meaningless.

I wish I could say that Le Petit Lieutenant reinvents the form or boasts some
kind of gimmick that separates it from the pack. But really, it's simply superior
to most. That's pretty much it. The script is smart, the cast couldn't be better,
and writer/director/actor Beauvois (he plays Morbé) has the right touch to make
it all work. He's not going for full-on melodrama any more than documentary-
style realism. He presents a number of archetypes, to be sure, but no one emerges as a stereotype. The writing and acting are far too good to let that happen.

Antoine, Solo, and Caroline interrogate a suspect
Set in Paris, his fourth film focuses on one seemingly insignificant murder, but
it's mostly about the plainclothes cops trying to solve it. And here's where those archetypes enter the scene. There's a recovering alcoholic inspector, a jaded vet,
and an eager young rookie, the "petit lieutenant" of the title. You've seen versions of these characters on numerous cop shows, like NYPD Blue and Homicide, and in movies, like Serpico. Yet, the film feels fresh. At times, I was reminded of previous pictures, like La Balance (1982), for which Nathalie Baye won her first César, but only at certain junctures. The movie, as a whole, doesn't feel like something I've seen before. Beauvois also has a way of showing how boring police work can be without actually boring the viewer. It isn't all running and shooting -- except when it is.
As it opens, the soft-eyed, square-jawed Antoine (Jalil Lespert, Human Resources) has just been transfered from Normandy. He couldn't be happier. Tired of sitting around, he can't wait to hit the streets. His wife, meanwhile, likes living in the country, where she teaches grade school. Antoine loves her dearly, but he loves his job just as much. She wants to make a difference, but so does he. This conundrum could have come across as clichéd, but Beauvois never pushes things too far. We see a little of Antoine's lady love, but not enough to make her a cop wife stock figure.
Antoine's co-workers include Inspector Vaudieu (Nathalie Baye, who scored a second César for her nicely shaded performance), veteran cop Mallet (Antoine Chappey), and Muslim cop Solo (Roschdy Zem). For the most part, they get along pretty well. Soon, they're almost like a family, which just pushes Antoine's wife further from the frame. Yes, there's a little racism, but not as much as you might expect. There are also echoes of Helen Mirren's Jane Tennyson (Prime Suspect, which ended its run last year) in Baye's inspector, who develops maternal feelings towards Antoine, but times have changed and for the most part, the men accept her as their leader.
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Mallet, Solo, and Antoine tie one on
By the end of the film, we've gotten to know the whole gang. We see them on the job and off the clock -- at recovery meetings, with their families, and downing a few at the local watering hole. They're brave and foolhardy, compassionate and selfish, funny and cruel. So often while watching cop dramas, I never stop to think how heroic they are to put their lives on the line for the greater good. And I certainly don't like to be told what to think. Beauvois and co-writers Cédric Anger, Guillaume Bréaud, and Jean-Eric Troubat give the audience more credit than that. But by depicting these people as fully-rounded individuals, and then showing what happens when the worst possible scenario plays out, my sense of appreciation was greater than if they had been depicted as complete losers, on the one hand, or superhuman, on the other.
There's nothing trendy about Le Petit Lieutenant, and nor is it an homage to the golden age of the procedural (Bullitt, The French Connection, etc.), but the fact that these happen to be a movie-mad crew of crime fighters just intensified my respect. Look closely, and you'll spot posters all over the squad room for films like Jean-Pierre Melville's Un Flic and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America. This kind
of attention to even the smallest detail makes Le Petit Lieutenant the best police procedural I've seen in years -- next to The Wire, of course -- but it accomplishes
more in 110 minutes than most cop shows do in an entire season. Don't miss it.
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Note the poster in the background...
Le Petit Lieutenant is currently playing at the Varsity Theater (4329 University
Way N.E.). For more information, please click here for the official website,
here for Landmark Theaters, or call the Varsity at 206-781-5755.

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