THE CESARS, the French equivalent of the Oscars, saw an upset this spring. For the first time in their 10-year history, the best film award went to a comedy, "My New Partner," over such serious, artistic competition as "A Sunday in the Country."
Does this mean that the French have developed a taste for slick, commercial entertainment like Americans? Perhaps. As my friend Corinne always used to say, "Ze French are like ze Americans, only with ze accents."
Whatever, "My New Partner" ("Les Ripoux" to the French) is the sort of film that will feel right at home here. It's a street- smart comedy, sassy and perfectly done, though not the sort that usually wins awards.
It costars the accomplished Philippe Noiret, a practiced player of cops, and matinee idol Thierry Lhermitte, a nouveau Louis Jourdan. Noiret plays Rene, a lovable but corrupt 20-year veteran of the police force whose comfortable paunch attests to a healthy interest in good wines and long lunches. He takes bribes, plays the ponies, spikes his superior's nose spray with cocaine, never pays for his lunch and rarely arrests anyone because the jails are overcrowded as it is.
Lhermitte, seen briefly in the American debacle "Until September," plays his idealistic new partner Francois, a teetotaling recent graduate of the police academy who peruses the penal codes over lunch. It's a marriage made in hell, until the new partner is seduced by the old-timer's savoir-faire, not to mention a pretty prostitute played by vivacious Grace de Capitani.
She's a friend of Rene's lover, an aging prostitute played wisely and well by the nightclub owner Regine. The comfortable older couple lure Francois into a far more lucrative life of petty crime, and he soon surpasses his mentor at graft.
The lean script is teamed with the eye- level, you-are-there street photography of Jean-Jacques Tarbes and the sharp direction of Claude Zidi, who also won a Cesar.
If there's an American connection to be made, it's "Beverly Hills Cop," in which Eddie Murphy teaches the naive detective Judge Reinhold that anything goes when it comes to crime-solving. But Murphy's cop is ultimately an honest one, with American virtues. Noiret, in his own inimitable, affectionate style, is an old-fashioned French cop, remorselessly and happily amoral.
"My New Partner" is a formula flics flick, quintessentially French and, with heartfelt apologies to "Sunday in the Country," pure escapist fun.
MY NEW PARTNER (R) -- In French with English subtitles at the KB Janus.