The Young Lieutenant
Two thirds of the way through Xavier Beauvois' The Young Lieutenant, Jalil Lespert's titular character gets seriously stabbed and looks like he's going to lose his life, which he will eventually do. We're unlikely to see this coming not because the character gets himself into a situation that isn't dangerous - it certainly is - but more especially because he's clearly been not just our titular but also our central character for much of the film. What Beauvois does here is take a secondary character trope and turn it into a primary character surprise. Where we often expect secondary characters to die (An Officer and a Gentleman, Top Gun, Basic Instinct), and usually at the same stage in the film as Lespert's Antoine is stabbed here, we somehow feel especially brought up short when the victim happens to be our leading man.
Now this isn't because the removal of a leading character is especially surprising in-itself (don't classic films like Psycho and L'Avventura in their very different ways remove the leading characters from their narratives early on?), but there does seem to be this sense of an epistemological/affective purposefulness suddenly being drained from the narrative. When it happens to be a supporting player the removal may move us, but there is no shift required for us to make sense of our thoughts and feelings: our thoughts and feelings remain with the leading character. But Beauvois seems to want us to understand something about the removal of a life in a situation that offers its strong possibility without leading us to expect it. How often do we watch films where leading characters are in immense danger, and yet we assume their general safety because they're the leading character in the film? This is the problematic Beauvois addresses in this apparently straightforward policier. He wants the viewer less to engage in the investigative aspect of the genre, than the exhaustive, frustrating and dangerous day to day work of the homicide cop.
So what is important to understand about The Young Lieutenant is the degree to which it wants to work tension not through suspense devices, but much more through what we'll call socio-dramatic devices, through comprehending the nature of the milieu in which the characters work, rather than the narrative through-lines through which a cop must tread. Thus procedure and logistics take precedence over storytelling. Though there are plenty potential clichs in the film, it's as if the clichs furnish fact and feeling rather than further narrative. In introducing various character details, including Nathalie Baye's senior homicide officer Caro who's been on the wagon for a couple of years, and Roschdy Zem's cop, Solo, from a Moroccan background who initially couldn't get certain white colleagues to team up with him, the film then moves into the specifics of the situation, both emotionally and factually by not especially utilising these details for the specifics of narrative expectation. Solo's comment proves no more than a casual observation that has no repercussions; and if anything would lead us to look forward not to its narrative relevance, but look back on how it allows us retrospectively to wonder who these racist cops might have been. Earlier in the film for example one of the cops (played by Beauvois himself) offers a position on sentences for homicide that leads the others to suggest he's on the far right, and so we wouldn't be at all surprised if he was one of the cops to whom Solo's referring. It makes us want to reassess the interactions rather than assess the next move.
In relation to Caro, it is true that she falls off the wagon after Antoine's death, but this has almost no impact on the plot (she seems to sober up by the next morning and remains sober for the rest of the film). It does suggest though the precariousness of her nervous system. And of course this is a nervous system that's no doubt been rocked both by personal and professional chaos. There is the death of her son when he was seven, and the occasional major case that she jokingly dismisses as the odd moment of excitement in a job that involves more paperwork than violent crime - yet isn't it the intermittent atrocity that shakes someone up, and the need to unwind that would demand something stronger than the mineral or tonic water she usually drinks? One of the great things about Beauvois' film is how he makes the water watery - how much harder it must be to eschew alcohol when not just the taste buds demand it, but also the nervous system and the police system also: when it becomes part of your everyday life.
Thus what the film constantly asks isn't that we anticipate the next action; so much as contemplate the present and past one. Even though the film successfully works two narrative tensions in the latter part of the film, it does so as if they're only as relevant as the lateral texture that can accommodate them. These two strands are whether or not Antoine will survive - the doctor suggests his chances are slim but there's definitely a chance - and if they can capture the Russian who's drowned at least one person in the canal and almost drowned another; and who's also responsible for stabbing Antoine.
These aren't of course irrelevant tension tactics, but they're secondary to a question that seems much bigger than these diegetic ones, and this is: what is it to be a Parisian homicide cop? It is to be bored, to be frustrated, to be drunk, to be racist, to be bigoted, to be lonely and to be in pain over past events; it is all these things and a handful of others. It is as though Beauvois absorbed Melville on the one hand, and yet superimposed upon him the details of a Pialat on the other. Certainly there are many filmic references through the posters up on the office walls in the homicide section's headquarters (including one for Melville's Un Flic), but it's to Pialat the film seems to owe a debt for the fatigue of the job over its excitement.
For if we claim The Young Lieutenant's two major influences as Melville and Pialat, we couldn't be talking about two more opposed French filmmakers. Jean-Pierre Melville is a director of immense precision, and he doesn't so much create characters as types: the suspicious, taciturn gangster, the unreliable moll, the grass, the heavy etc. Everybody in Melville's work gives the impression of playing a role, whether that is by the nature of Melville's direction, where he'll frame the actor as if an icon (as he so obviously does with Delon in Le Samourai), or because the characters know they're in world of constant game-playing and have to stay one step ahead not by being themselves, but by playing their role in the game of chess that is the underworld, as in Le Doulos and Second Wind.
Here we might assume Caro is a female variation of Delon's figure in Le Samourai: she lives alone in a compact Parisian flat and even has a bird in a cage. But this is closer to Pialat's isolates (Depardieu in Police, or in Under Satan's Sky), where there's an inner search at work more readily than an external persona to be lived up to. It's in Caro's face; not the impassivity of a Delon, but a constant sensitivity up against the brutalising environment. When she says to Antoine that there are only occasionally big murder enquiries and that it's mostly a desk job, it's the 'excitement' that presumably caused the pain.
So the film's caught between the analytic, narrativized precision of Melville, and the personalizing details of a Pialat. Some might believe it falls between the two stools and gives us neither one thing nor another, but Beauvois is a fine director not of the suspiciousness of environment as in Melville, or the tension of the milieu, as in Pialat, but of the empathic gesture diegetically, and of the framing, non-diegetically. The film is full of moments where we're nursing and sharing pain rather than adrenalizing over the events. It may just lie in the way Solo asks a colleague to get in touch if he needs anything after the colleague's been transferred, or Jacques Perrin's character taking care of Caro after she goes to his place completely drunk. Then again it can be in the way the film witnesses Antoine's police partner sitting broken, defeated and feeling guilty on the pavement outside the apartment where Antoine's been stabbed. (He popped along for a quick beer while Antoine's investigated.) Or it could be in the way Caro finally has that drink after she hears of Antoine's death.
In each instance there is a strong sense of the filmmaker finding images to register pain. This is never more so than in the empathic shots he gives a character who's really been no more than a cameo: Antoine's wife. Here as she leaves Antoine's graveside the camera tracks her as she walks away while the others are still by the grave, and then cuts to a medium long shot of her looking hopelessly lost as she walks who knows where. She's barely been in the film up until this point except to question Antoine on whether he's been fair to her by taking the job in Paris: after he graduated he immediately took the post without even consulting her. She's a teacher in Le Havre, and expected them to live there together. This scene of empathy is one of those curious moments where sociologically it makes sense for the film to follow her pain - she is after all his wife - but narratologically it would make more sense to follow Caro: she's the film's other main character and seems to have strong, maternal feelings for the young man.
Yet of course the film does then follow Caro's pain, but what is again interesting, and gives us this sense of a broader based empathy, is that while it's a pain over Antoine, it also seems to reflect back on her own life, on the loss of her son, an apparent loss of a partner who died at Antoine's age, and also the loss of her intimacy with others. At one moment she sits in the car with an ex-lover from years before and recalls leaving a letter for this older police chief (Perrin,) saying that she had to be alone, and now realises how stupid she had been. At another moment she talks to him about all those drunken nights picking up strangers she wouldn't see again beyond the next morning. Thus Antoine's wounding and eventual death isn't a proactive loss - where the mourning galvanizes someone into action to move the plot onto the next stage as personal revenge is added to professional motive. It is more a reflective loss.
The film becomes fascinated much more by Caro's repercussive mood than by her adrenalized feelings, and if we wanted to say anything about the feminisation of the genre, here, it should have less to do with representational givens, than permutational feelings. One of the many limitations of female action films of the nineties (from The Long Kiss Goodnight to T2) was the degree to which the woman's feelings weren't really the issue: it was a bit like putting a man into a woman's body and allowing business as usual. Sure, here, when Antoine dies, Caro becomes our leading character, but there's the sense that the film has been steadily and increasingly interested in the tenor of Caro's mood over Antoine's. (This is partly why Antoine's demise is significant enough to throw us from our bearings, but not enough to damage the film's sense of direction).
There is very little excitement generated here for the job, and this is where we might again think of its procedural and logistical aspect. When Antoine's our leading character, the film follows the process involved in learning the ropes because of course Antoine is unfamiliar with many of the procedures involved in working in the homicide division in Paris. It's as if the film wants exhaustively to show us the details of the cop's job, but perfunctorily to deal with the tension involved in the work. It is in keeping with the remark about office work with the occasional moment of excitement. And this procedural aspect is of course linked to the logistical, where Antoine for example witnesses an autopsy as the pathologist explains the how, where and why of the victim's death, and Antoine and his colleagues need to investigate in relation to this information.
Yet this is really only the first section of the film, abruptly ended by Antoine's stabbing, as it then moves on to a tonally different approach where melancholy replaces learning curves. Caro obviously has little to learn but much to reflect upon, and the film could almost pass for the opposite of a recruiting poster without at all being a disrespectful take on the work of homicide cops in Paris. It is as though Beavois set himself the problem of how to make a cop film that is neither recruiting poster (and we might think of all the posters to cop and war films on the walls of the offices in the department) nor a priori critique, and found it through the melancholy of Caro.
This leads us onto the film's denouement, a denouement that gains its meaning as much from the light that Beauvois utilises as through the story development. Here the film switches from Paris to Nice as the Russian migr who threw a man into the canal and who stabbed Antoine to death, escapes southward, and Caro and her team find him in a hotel room. With all avenues blocked he tries to escape through the hotel window, but who stands below it but Caro, promptly shooting him to death. The film gains minimal suspense out of this potentially immensely suspenseful situation: Baye shoots him perfunctorily as he climbs over the balcony. It's as though the film wants to focus less on the adrenaline buzz of pursuit than the melancholy of that wonderful southern light that drew so many painters to the region.
While most of the scenes in Paris are shot in gloomy grey, the Southern scenes are filmed in either bright sunshine or, as in the closing scene, beautiful magic hour. When Chris Darke suggested , in Light Readings, that Beauvois' earlier Don't Forget You're Going to Die showed that Beauvois was very much a son of cinema, and son of the New Wave, he also noted Beauvois' interest in Romantic painting and literature too. Beauvois himself talked of the importance of Byron and Delacroix in this early feature. Now where most ofThe Young Lieutenant seems consistent with the posters up on the wall in the homicide office, this last sequences may resemble the scenes in (the generally also Paris based) Don't Forget You're Going to Die, when Beauvois falls in love with Chiara Mastroianni in Italy (both films were shot by Caroline Champetier). What they do is contain the busy realism of the rest of the film, and bring forth the melancholic possibilities not in life per se, but a life contained by death. In Don't Forget You're Going to Die, Beauvois, dying of AIDS is, as Darke describes him, 'a dead man on leave, traipsing through the sunlit landscapes of Italian classicism..." In The Young Lieutenant, Caro is a woman for whom death is not an immanent possibility, but a reflective realisation as the man she's just killed isn't so much an opportunity for celebration, as someone who demands no more than a moment of reflection. Yet another human life's been removed, and as she walks along the Nice beach in light that many an impressionist captured, Beauvois does that pain justice partly through Nathalie Baye's face, but also with the way the stunningly crepuscular light plays off it.
© Tony McKibbin