Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 20 September 2006
Source Cinema Guild 35MM Theatrical Print
Beauvois’ Le Petit Lieutenant concludes with a walk on the beach, an ambiguous moment similar to the final shots inLes Quatre cents coups and La Dolce vita; suspended in transience and uncertainty, Commandant Caroline Vaudieu has successfully completed her first case since her reinstatement in the French police force but remains unsettled, perhaps bitter, as the case also brings unsatisfying vengeance for a colleague’s death. Le Petit Lieutenant’s tough, impermeable surface is indicative of the profession it portrays. Although certainly a thriller on surface level, the film is far more interesting for its meditative take on the detective film genre.
Fresh out of the academy, Antoine (the young lieutenant of the title) is enamored with his job, particularly with his placement in Paris. Despite a recently new marriage, Antoine accepts the position rather than remaining in a town he claims has only one crime each year. It seems apparent that Antoine has been fed a steady diet of film detective lore, gleefully admitting that the movies were his biggest influence in joining the academy; the film posters flanking the walls at the police department, ranging from Se7en to Reservoir Dogs, further acknowledge the existence of the fantasy apparently long gone from the minds of Antoine’s colleagues, many of whom are bored, disinterested or resentful when assigned the painfully tedious, yet imperative aspects of a case.
Most of the film is spent in wait, drawn out periods in which the detectives go on fruitless stakeouts, play video games at the station while the phone stays silent, or seek out suspects in the countless hostels of Paris. While Antoine professes to his wife that he needs to be in Paris for the action, his reality would argue a sharp disparity, if not for the persistent enthusiasm Antoine has for his work, even in the minutest details. Antoine does engage in rather juvenile, testosterone-fueled antics during his early days on the force (such as impromptu speeding through the streets of Paris when asked to simply pick up a police car) but after Vaudieu assigns him increasing responsibility on a murder case, Antoine displays far more interest and dedication than his colleagues: ambitions typically rewarded in this genre. However, Beauvois puts Antoine’s dedication at the tip of a slender and ambivalent decision that haunts the film, as well as Commandant Vaudieu.
As a middle-aged woman heading a detective force, Vaudieu is a fascinating to watch; her hesitation at rejoining the force evaporates the moment a murder victim is found in the Seine as instinct kicks in, simultaneously revitalizing her and distracting her from the own emotional baggage that pushed her away from work in the first place. In creating the parallel storyline between new and experienced cop, Beauvois creates a seemingly simple portrait, but the connection between Antoine and Vaudieu is comprised of not merely novice and mentor, it is also incisively of mother and son. Vaudieu’s Achilles heel (as she is known as a “super cop,” according to a peer) is her alcoholism, triggered by the loss of her young son. She notes to a colleague that Antoine is the same age as her son, had he lived. While Vaudieu distances herself from her colleagues emotionally and socially, unable to partake in after work drinking excursions, her interest Antoine brings her close to the lieutenant not only in conversation, but also in the mounting details of the case, as she assigns Antoine and works closely with him. The relationship between Vaudieu and Antoine invokes the notion of passing the torch, but what exactly is left to pass on to a younger generation? Beauvois, adept at capturing the unappealing aspects of these detectives’ lives, is bluntly candid in depicting the unyielding unhappiness pervading their lives, a necessary distress that fuels not only adrenaline, but the will to get out up in the morning and survive another day.