Jane Tennison, the world-weary detective played with such smarts by Helen Mirren on "Prime Suspect," has a sister across the Channel. Inspector Caroline Vaudieu (Nathalie Baye), the center of the taut cop drama "Le Petit Lieutenant," has returned to work at a Paris criminal unit after a long absence to deal with her drinking problem. Scarred by loss (her son has died) and living only with a pair of caged birds, she immerses herself in work, taking a special interest in a young rookie named Antoine (Jalil Lespert). She does not mention her son, but her relationship with Antoine is at times briskly maternal; she's watching out for him, in a way that he does not notice.
Baye, her face ever-rueful, takes hold of the film, wordlessly speaking volumes about this lonely woman. (Was the necklace she never removes a gift from her son?) Caroline is a fragile survivor, ever-so-slightly glamorous (her heels tap enticingly on the dreary office floor) and yet remote. She's well matched with Lespert, whose Antoine has a youthful playfulness. When he drives a police car, siren screeching, for the first time, he's like a kid with a video game; "Paris is mine!" he roars, happily swerving through the traffic.
Director/co-writer Xavier Beauvois ("To Mathieu," which also starred Baye) pays attention to the details of the cop milieu. Antoine gets his first gun from a shabby supply closet, and gets to know his colleagues over drinks and computer games. They bond in an us-against-the-world way, like soldiers in a war, and Beauvois frequently reminds us of the military parallel: A landlady notes "Lieutenants, captains ... it's like the army"; a colleague sits under a French-language poster for "Saving Private Ryan."
The film's plot, revolving around a murder investigation that turns nasty, ticks along smoothly and efficiently, its pace as tight as Baye's tired smile. But it's ultimately more of a character drama, and a reminder that great acting often has little to do with words. Watch Baye at the end, in a long close-up in which disbelief, wonderment, frustration and anger all flicker across her face, each emotion registering and slipping away again. She says nothing, and she doesn't need to.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com