CINEMA / An outing to the flics that doesn't miss a beat: It's about cops. They're corrupt. So what's new about Tavernier's latest film? Chris Peachment finds out

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ANYONE WHO has been on the receiving end of the Paris police, especially the riot squad, knows that they are not often constrained by such niceties as the law. The public take a loose attitude towards les flics, reckoning that unless you are actually in their clutches, they are best left to their own devices. Even the most routine policier film will contain small acts of corruption. Bertrand Tavernier's L627 shows little else.

It follows the day-to-day grind of a drug squad, abandoning conventional narrative for a storyline which is just One-Damn-Thing-After-Another. It's not exactly one of those 'hard-hitting exposes' which television is always threatening us with, but it shows the lads cheerfully doing things they shouldn't - nobbling suspects, sexism, racism, all the usual stuff. For an equally truthful account of what it is to be a French policeman, one would have to go as far back as Bob Swaim's La Balance (1982).

The title refers to Article L627 of the Public Health Code, under which suspects can be held for four days. The idea for the film came from Tavernier's son Nils, an ex-heroin addict who plays one of the flics. 'He introduced me to Michel Alexandre (credited with the screenplay), who had been a police investigator. He took me over the beat, introduced me to all the right people, and after a few months we had 600 pages of notes.'

The film often has the degree-zero realistic style of a video, an approach which owes something to Tavernier's previous film, The Undeclared War, a documentary on the survivors of the Algerian campaign. The opening sequence, a night-time stakeout and pursuit, seems especially authentic. Had Tavernier actually gone out on patrol with the police? 'In France I have to say no, because it is not allowed. Here in England I can say yes, because I did.' One can't help wondering what the boys in blue made of this middle-aged, effusive, cuddly-looking man. 'Well, I am a good bourgeois, it's true. But, I tell you, I am more comfortable with this sort of people than I am when walking into the lobby of this ritzy hotel. I am patient, and a good listener.'

Tavernier was born in 1941 in Lyons (the gastronomic capital of France, which may explain his reputation as the best cook in the film world). His father was a poet, aesthete and writer on the arts. 'There were two areas about which he knew nothing - jazz and cinema. So that is what I decided to study.' Those two loves came together in the happy conjunction of 'Round Midnight (1986), starring the saxophonist Dexter Gordon.

Tavernier had begun in the early Sixties as an assistant director to Jean-Pierre Melville, among others, but dropped out when he realised that he was too immature to make his own films then; a realisation achieved by all too few film directors. He worked instead as a press agent, largely as an excuse to bring to France all the American directors he admired - Joseph Losey, John Ford, Howard Hawks. His knowledge of US cinema is vast, and this, combined with the delay in making his first film until 1974, means that he shoots in a classic style which owes nothing to the French New Wave of the Sixties.

He was also a champion of Michael Powell, and responsible for gaining distribution in France for the then-loathed Peeping Tom. 'I was devoted to him in his last years. One thing he taught me, which I used in this film, was to always have your hero do something wrong.' This refers to the one cop of the squad, Lulu (Didier Bezace), who is hard-working, and tolerant - but not above beating up an Arab suspect when exasperated.

'I concentrate perhaps more on Lulu, but I wanted to show the squad as a whole, complete with the racist, the arsehole, the slacker, and the ruthless one,' says Tavernier. 'The funny thing is that a workaholic like Lulu is the last thing that anyone, either cops or drug dealers, actually wants. He just complicates the whole process by chasing the big guys and causing too much paperwork, when really it's much simpler to fulfil the quota requirements by busting small-time users on street corners.'

Needless to say the film has been condemned from on high, in particular by Paul Quiles, the Interior Minister. But what had the police made of it? 'One policeman told me that he had a recruit who wanted to join the drug squad. So he said to the guy, 'Go and see L627, and then come back and tell me whether you still want to.' I believe he did join.'

'L627' (15) is at the Lumiere (071-836 0691) from Fri.

(Photograph omitted)