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Complex ‘Thieves’ Takes Effort, Gives Reward

Fri., April 18, 1997

The French film “Thieves” strives to be a psychological study of family and crime. You know the type, where dysfunction is played out until someone dies. Typically by violence.

Oh, and because it’s French, you know there’s going to be eating, drinking and the occasional bout of lovemaking, too.

Told in seven out-of-sequence chapters, with the time frame bookending the death of a major character, “Thieves” (or “Les Voleurs”) involves two brothers - one a car thief, the other a cop - and the characters who populate their respective worlds.

When the film opens, Ivan (Didier Bezace) is dead. The leader of a gang that specializes in heisting elite automobiles, Ivan has been killed in a botched robbery attempt. As his body is being tended to, most of the film’s major characters move in and out of the frame.

Typical of the way director Andre Techine tells his story (based on a script that he co-wrote with Gilles Taurand), we can’t right off see how any of this fits together, not to mention how any of the characters fit together.

Instead, to make things even more obtuse, Techine portrays the scene through the eyes of a child.

Justin (Julien Riviere), Ivan’s son, is as dour in temperament as he is anguished over … well, something, though it may not necessarily be the death of his father.

And that is just the prologue. From then on, Techine’s movie becomes unstuck in time.

First we move to a whole year before Ivan’s death, and we follow Ivan’s brother, Alex (Daniel Auteuil), as he fills his joyless life with “an endless stream of identical losers.”

Gradually, we see how Alex’s life contrasts with Ivan’s, whose co-ownership in a dance club/bar gives him the standing to be able to tell Alex, “You never knew how to enjoy life.”

We see how Alex becomes involved with street-trash beauty Juliette (Laurence Cote) and how their affair is fueled by “feelings of mutual contempt.” We see how Juliette is tied to Ivan and, ultimately, how that relationship results in the film’s climactic scene.

But none of this comes easily. Or quickly. Because first we meet Marie (Catherine Deneuve) on the night of Ivan’s death. A professor and writer (though her lone book flopped), Deneuve, we learn, is both a resident of the dry, dusty life of the mind - and Juliette’s other lover.

Further layering comes in each succeeding chapter: Juliette, whom we meet six months before the death; Justin again, two days after his father’s death (when Alex blows his one chance of connecting with the boy); Alex, 10 days after Ivan’s cremation; and finally, the epilogue.

How much you like “Thieves” likely will depend on how much patience you’re willing to display as Techine tells his serpentine story. The problem is that no one, even Justin, is sympathetic enough to warrant much concern.

The result, then, is a little like opening up one of those Russian dolls-within-dolls until you find nothing at the center.

Ultimately, there is no mystery to this mystery.

But to merely dismiss “Thieves” would be foolish. Techine and Taurand, despite their overly complex storytelling style, are interested in figuring out why people, especially those we might not like, are the way they are. And they utilize a couple of interesting techniques in doing so.

For one thing, most of the acting fits the filmmakers’ intent. In particular, Auteuil, whose ability to play an emotional somnambulant was refined in the film “Un Coeur en Hiver,” is perfect as the automaton Alex. And Deneuve, France’s ice princess of the cinema, has never been more animated as the aging Marie who finds a doomed kind passion in the arms of self-destructive youth.

As for style, Techine-Taurand love their irony. For while it is not an original notion, irony abounds in any situation where the ostensible “good guy” (Alex, the cop) is portrayed as even more of a social outcast than the “bad guy” (Ivan, the thief).

And then there’s the title. On the surface, the title would seem simply to reflect the occupation of Ivan and his cohorts. In a larger sense, however, it relates to the forces that formed the character of Alex, maybe Juliette and her brother, and are definitely in the process of forming Justin: namely, the theft of childhood.

But … enough. These are the kinds of things that are fun to talk about after the film is over. In the case of “Thieves,” of course, that would take place best over a baguette, some cheese and a good red wine.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Thieves” *** Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Andre Techine, starring Daniel Auteuil, Catherine Deneuve, Laurence Cote, Didier Bezace, Benoit Magimel. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 1:55 Rating: R

This sidebar appeared with the story: “Thieves” *** Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Andre Techine, starring Daniel Auteuil, Catherine Deneuve, Laurence Cote, Didier Bezace, Benoit Magimel. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 1:55 Rating: R



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