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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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