- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

The dialogue in the new French drama “Le Petit Lieutenant” references some classic fictional police detectives, including Columbo and Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret.

Like the Peter Falk television program and the Simenon novels, “Le Petit Lieutenant” is made of equal parts suspense and humor. But the crimes, central to those series, here are almost an afterthought. It is those investigating them who are the real mysteries.

Antoine Derouere (Jalil Lespert), the young lieutenant of the title, is fresh out of the police academy. He chooses a post in Paris to escape the monotony of Le Havre. On weekends, he visits his schoolteacher wife Julie (Berangere Allaux), who refuses to leave Normandy.

Julie is very pretty, but her charms can’t measure up to those of an investigative crimes unit in the capital. The officers have little to investigate at first — they frequent a bar more often than crime scenes — but Antoine gets his kicks where he can. He jumps at the chance to help subdue a drunk vagrant, trying hard to be as gruff as the veterans. And there’s a hilarious scene when he realizes that he can scoot past traffic by turning on his car’s siren: “Paris is mine,” he exults.

Every member of the team seems to be in it for the rush — even Commandant Caroline Vaudieu (Nathalie Baye). “Caro” is old enough to be Antoine’s mother, but she’s also new to the team, returning to policing after a long struggle with alcoholism.

The cops make sly jokes about how Caro seems to favor Antoine, but it’s not sexual. She lost her son in childhood; he’d be about Antoine’s age now. Their tentative relationship will be tested once the team finally gets a juicy crime, the murder of a vagrant near the Seine.

The handsome Mr. Lespert plays Antoine with an appealing mixture of enthusiasm and naivete, but despite the title, “Le Petit Lieutenant” is not really the story of the lieutenant. The movie belongs to Miss Baye, whose hard-bitten exterior covers oceans of vulnerabilities. She seems the most confident of those in her Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but when presented with the possibility of another loss, “Madame Supercop,” as she’s described, finds she’s not superhuman.

Miss Baye (“Day for Night”) garnered a Cesar Award, the French Oscar, for her quietly understated performance, which she gives mostly through her face.

Director Xavier Beauvois (“Nord”) has a small part in the film as a right-wing cop, but his voice is all over this deeply felt film.

***

TITLE: “Le Petit Lieutenant”

RATING: Unrated (contains very brief nudity, some violence, adult language)

CREDITS: Directed by Xavier Beauvois. Written by Cedric Anger, Mr. Beauvois, Guillaume Breaud and Jean-Eric Troubat. In French with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes

WEB SITE: www.cinemaguild.

com/lepetitlieutenant/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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