Since French writer-director Arnaud Desplechin first made a splash at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival with his feature debut ‘La Sentinelle’, he has established himself – in his native country, at any rate – as a filmmaker of ambition and insight. At the same time, his work has often been a tad too idiosyncratic, even whimsical, to gain widespread international recognition. This latest could be accused of neither flaw; indeed, in some respects, in its straightforward, robustly realist look at the daily working lives of a couple of cops in Roubaix, an impoverished town in northern France, it might be regarded by some as his most conventional movie to date.
It begins with Captain Daoud (Roschdy Zem) and his team – which includes newcomer Louis (Antoine Reinartz), to some degree a surrogate for the audience – responding to a range of incidents: domestic violence, fraudulent insurance claims, rape, a missing-persons case and arson – before it comes to focus on the sordid murder of an elderly woman. Eventually, two female suspects are singled out, and Daoud and his colleagues set about trying to find out what, precisely, occurred, and who did what.
For all that it might initially seem a little old-fashioned, Desplechin’s film is more unusual than it appears. He’s unconcerned with generating suspense or, indeed, any real sense of mystery; it’s soon clear than the suspects (played by Léa Seydoux and Sara Forestier) are probably guilty, and that the ‘answers’ provided by the many interrogation sessions and the re-enactment of the crime are of more interest to the police than they are to the audience. Rather, Desplechin – himself born and raised in Roubaix, and his film being inspired by a real-life case – focuses on showing how an investigation works: this is a police procedural picture that takes the procedure aspect, in all its repetitive and banal details, far more seriously than most movies do (or, for that matter, television series).
If the aura of authenticity is undermined by the characterisation of Daoud as almost unfailingly kind, gentle and wise – the detective as divine interpreter of humanity’s flaws – the plausibility is helped no end by the excellence of the performances: Seydoux, Forestier and the consistently charismatic Zem are as dependably fine as ever. Surprisingly engrossing and well worth checking out.