At police headquarters, the walls are plastered with movie posters—Reservoir Dogs, Un Flic, Once Upon a Time in America--and fresh-faced police academy graduate Antoine Deroruere (Jalil Laspert) expects his new job in the Paris detective unit to be just like those movies. At night, he sits up in his shabby room, fondles his standard-issue gun, misses his wife who stayed behind in the provinces (Bérangère Allaux), and dreams of catching robbers.
But Le Petit Lieutenant, an unassuming and effective ensemble piece that follows a squad of Paris detectives through their workday lives and lonesome nights, isn't interested in perpetuating cinematic misconceptions. With the help of time spent with a real detective unit, writer and director Xavier Beauvoir deliberately undermines the clichés we've come to expect from the genre. Twists that would be off-limits in a Hollywood movie ruthlessly strip Antoine--and us--of his preconceived notions about his chosen line of work. The banality of the film's major case leaves little room for dreaming: it doesn't get any less glamorous than wrestling homeless thieves in the Metro.
Nathalie Baye in "Le Petit Lieutenant"
There is a wonderful throwaway moment when a thrilled Antoine is ordered on his first stake-out, complete with high-tech binoculars and a shifty witness, but his weathered colleagues only grumble: overtime is overtime, and they'd rather be at home. After all, they're not after a mafia wedding or a high-powered cocaine deal--they're staking out a soup kitchen.
This exchange lasts only a few seconds, but it is one of the dozen or so moments from Le Petit Lieutenant that have stuck with me with surprising persistence, from the opening police academy ceremony to the haunting final shot, inspired by Truffaut's 400 Blows. The movie begins with Antoine's heroic fantasies, but in the end it is the marvelous Nathalie Baye, as an aging veteran struggling with too many ruined illusions, who walks away with the film.