Le Petit Lieutenant (2005)

Erik Hinton

A film so inert that the movie itself is little more than a series of stills.

Le Petit Lieutenant

Director: Xavier Beauvois
Cast: Nathalie Baye, Jalil Lespert, Roschdy Zem, Antoine Chappey
Distributor: Koch Lorber
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Why Not Productions
First date: 2005
US DVD Release Date: 2007-04-17

It is very possible that Le Petit Lieutenantwill be remembered as the archetypal model of a modern generic portmanteau which I ever-so begrudgingly term ennui-wave. Earlier, much better films of the early 21st century (Clean, Chungking Express) indicated filmmaking trending in this direction, but solidifies the paradigm through conspicuously absent features (rather than added elements which were a credit the success of its predecessors).

Ennui-wave, as the name would suggest, takes cues from France’s famed nouvelle vague (new wave), an aesthetic theorized and perfected by “auteurs” such as Truffaut, Godard, and Renoir. This style of cinema is masterful in its balance of a placid baseline (dead intervals, a lingering camera, a preference of extended conversation over action) with a discomforting reversal of cinematic convention (jump cuts, frequent ellipses, handheld camera work). This admixture denudes human artifice and creates intensely personal, beautiful films. Le Petit Lieutenantwants badly to be a work which will be referred to in criticism as “a quiet powerhouse of a film” and perhaps it succeeds (as this is a direct quote from the Los Angeles Times' review of the movie).

There is no doubt this film is “quiet”, as most dialogue is carried barely above a whisper. Furthermore, Beauvois apes the “placid baseline” of the new wave, making a film that intentionally drags and is dialogue-heavy. If anyone is to doubt that Beauvois means to cite the nouvelle vague, and this is not just a product of coincidence, consider the last shot: a character standing alone on a beach staring into the camera in close-up (if you don’t understand this scene, watch Truffaut’s The 400 Blows). There is no stylistic inversion of canon in this film; that rough-around-the-edges characteristic that pumps humanity into the new wave.

Rather, Beauvois’ piece is sterling and clean, rendered in punchy blacks and whites with muted colors, oft-steadicamed, and dissolving its way through classic continuity editing. This is the essence of ennui-wave: dead time and a completely sanitized aesthetic. Meditate on the affectation of a brushed-metal waiting room, lit by fluorescent lights, and barely perceptible smooth jazz playing. We have all been in these offices and hospitals before. This is the milieu of ennui-wave (so named because it at once hinges on and consumes with boredom).

relates the tale of Antoine, a new graduate of the French police academy, assigned to a plainclothes unit in Paris. He has a young wife who cannot move to Paris with him as she has a teaching commitment in their home town. Antoine’s early days on the force are spent in tedium, anxiously awaiting something to do. In the meantime, he becomes close with the force cavorting through café’s and bars, smoking and drinking his way to camaraderie.

His superior, Caroline, is a respected police woman and recovering alcoholic. Throughout the course of the film, they become increasingly close. Le Petit Lieutenant’s main focus is on its cast of characters and their interpersonal workings. However, the plot is advanced by a string of Seine-side murders which draws the force through the seedy underbelly of the City of Light’s homeless and transient sector. As predicted, this leads to tragedy and the cast’s response is, allegedly, where the film is imbued with real strength (or so I am told by the release notes).

So lets review: Police Procedural- Dead horse. Rookie boredom- Dead Horse. Mixing business and pleasure- Dead horse. The intentional slow pace, rather than the adagio appurtenances of the new wave- Horse killer. Now, so that my judgment does not sound unwarrantedly draconian, I will admit that there is a good performance or two hidden in Le Petit Lieutenant. Nathalie Baye won the Cesar award for her role as Caroline, an accolade which I feel is entirely justified by her sublime portrayal of the police superior. She acutely summons a past imbued with self-destructive alcoholism and regret that is discernable in detail without any explanation. However, her talent and a couple of sincere lines from the supporting cast cannot save Le Petit Lieutenant.

If the agenda of the blockbuster is to make as much profit as it possibly can, the agenda of the ¬ennui-wave piece is to generate as much critical references to its “power” as it can. I believe that rationale is employed with a soporific even keel; the minutiae of the performance will spawn potent subtlety. Indeed, you can almost hear the director instructing, “Keep the camera rolling as she stares steely-eyed into the distance. One, no, five more seconds. And . . . cut!”

has less special features than a VHS. The theatrical trailer, much more compelling than the actual film, is included along with a stills gallery. It still escapes me why anyone would need freeze frames of a film which is so inert that the movie itself is little more than a series of stills.

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