Light on visceral thrills and heavy on the quotidian rhythms of life on the force, Xavier Beauvois's police procedural owes more to Prime Suspect and Hill Street Blues than it does to any film genre. And Le Petit Lieutenant is all the better for it, if you can withstand the glacial pace and loving attention to the smallest details. Jalil Lespert, who played the lead role in Laurent Cantet's Human Resources, stars as a provincial cop who lands a coveted Paris assignment working on a multiple robbery-murder investigation under the leadership of a Jane Tennison-like inspector, played by Nathalie Baye, who's returning to the force after a long struggle with alcoholism. Frumpy hair or not, Baye's worn features, mobile mouth and doe eyes betray not just long suffering, but a capacity for motherly sensuality that complicates the inspector's delicate relationship with her raw recruit. Still, if there's any excitement in Le Petit Lieutenant, it's the romance of the routine and the mundane, along with the cover-ups, elisions and casual racism of the police precinct, evoked by Beauvois with a spare precision that holds steady just this side of tedium. Even when tragedy finally strikes, it's the inner shifts that count. Walking along a beach, Baye turns to the camera the dull eyes of a woman who's seen it all and has had enough.
Le Petit Lieutenant screens at Starz FilmCenter in the Tivoli; visit www.denverfilm.org for tickets and showtimes.