Low-key Gallic cop pic “The Young Lieutenant” seems so determined to reproduce the drudgery of police work, it’s boring for the first hour, and only marginally more exciting for the second. Inert, deliberately unaffecting direction by fourth-time helmer Xavier Beauvois (“To Matthieu,” “Don’t Forget You’re Going to Die”) squanders potentially interesting script research and an impressive cast, led by Nathalie Baye, playing against type as a cop, and Jalil Lespert in the title role. Unless the pic gets championed by French critics and smartly marketed, “Lieutenant” won’t arrest much local B.O. interest, and will be stuck on the fest beat abroad.
Keen-as-mustard Antoine (Lespert, from “The Last Mitterrand”), fresh out of the police academy, gets the posting he’s asked for to the Criminal Investigation Division in Paris. His wife Julie (Berangere Allaux) refuses to leave their Normandy home, so during the week, he stays in rented digs in the city.
The division’s new chief inspector, Caroline Vaudieu (Baye), a recovering alcoholic who lost her own son years ago to meningitis, takes a motherly interest in Antoine and involves him in the investigation of a murder of a homeless Pole (Arthur Smykiewicz). Scrupulous Moroccan-French cop Solo (Roschdy Zem) and his corner-cutting colleague Mallet (Antoine Chappey), among others, also work on the case.
First half of the pic takes its sweet time introducing characters and working in backstories. There’s much lingering over procedural detail.
At what seems like the 15th homeless shelter, Mallet goes off for a beer, so eager beaver Antoine calls on a suspect alone and ends up getting stabbed.
Baye’s Vaudieu dominates the rest of the pic, as she first falls off the wagon, and then grimly pushes the team harder to find the suspects, leading into perfunctory climax in Nice. Helmer Beauvois, who also has a supporting role as another cop, keeps most of the cast tuned to a narrow range of notes, which arguably makes them convincing as hard-bitten cops but less interesting to watch. The sole exception is Lespert’s puppyish Antoine, whose energy is sorely missed once the character goes into a coma.
The strategy to underplay pays off in scenes that might otherwise have been hammy, like Vaudieu’s fall from sobriety, which Baye pulls off with sorrowful dignity. However, over the long haul, it becomes hard to work up any sense of engagement with such benumbed characters. Monotonous editing doesn’t help.
Lensing by d.p. Caroline Champetier, featuring smooth steadicam work by Jean-Baptiste Thibaud and Nicolas Dollander is congruent with the pic’s general smooth, unobtrusive style.