Thieves (France, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Thieves is André Téchiné's followup to his unexpectedly successful 1995 art-house entry, Wild Reeds. In fact, Téchiné drew so much interest for his installment of the French TV series, All the Boys and Girls of the World, that Filmopolis Pictures rushed out and acquired the distribution rights to Téchiné's previous film, Ma Saison Préferée. Now, the acclaimed director whose movies were once rarely seen beyond New York's Walter Reade Theater is reaching increasingly larger and more enthusiastic audiences.

Actually, in the wake of Ma Saison Préferée and Wild Reeds, Thieves represents a slight step down. Emphasis, however, on slight. The film features riveting performances by French icons Catherine Deneuve and Daniel Auteuil as two points of a romantic triangle. The third component is essayed by the sexy Laurence Côte, who, despite ten years of French screen credits, is a virtual newcomer to U.S. viewers. The acting, a hallmark of Téchiné's films, has never been stronger than in Thieves.

Auteuil plays Alex, a French cop with a chip on his shoulder and a penchant for keeping his emotions under lock and key. Auteuil, who does this kind of role so well (check out Un Couer en Hiver for an example), is perfectly cast, and never for the briefest of moments does his portrayal ring false. Deneuve, the ageless star who is returning opposite Auteuil (the two played brother and sister in Ma Saison Préferée), is superlative as Marie, the fragile philosophy professor who falls in love often and easily. On the other hand, although Côte gives a strong performance, her character, Juliette, is more of a catalyst than a three-dimensional individual. Juliette's presence remains enigmatic and sketchily drawn, and is all-but-forgotten during the movie's final third.

The event that jump-starts Thieves is the murder of Alex's criminal brother, Ivan (Didier Bezace), who was the head of a car-stealing ring. Juliette is somehow mixed up in the ring, but the situation is complicated because she's sleeping with Alex, who has been trying to gather enough evidence to put his brother behind bars. Marie, Juliette's other lover, becomes involved in the investigation when Juliette disappears and Alex approaches her to see whether she has been in touch with the young woman. Through a series of flashbacks presented from four different perspectives (Marie's, Juliette's, Alex's, and that of Alex's adolescent nephew, Justin), Téchiné develops both plot and characters.

The best parts of Thieves are the beginning and end, which concentrate on Alex and Marie, both as they interact with Juliette and with each other. The middle section of the film is somewhat murky, and, with Auteuil and Deneuve largely off-screen, less compelling. Taking nothing away from Côte's performance, she doesn't hold our attention the way her co-stars do, in part because her character doesn't exhibit the same emotional depth or breadth. This segment of the movie also features the most exposition, introducing us to the inner workings of the thieves' ring. Compared with the emotional tension choreographed by Téchiné when he concentrates on the romantic triangle, this aspect of Thieves seems mundane.

Thieves' payoff occurs during the last third, when Alex and Marie, ostensibly searching for Juliette, become entwined in each others' lives. This isn't love, at least not in the conventional sense, but something that is, paradoxically, less profound and more complex. As the two of them try to establish a sense of trust, the normally-open Marie finds herself shutting down while the emotionally-closeted Alex discovers, much to his surprise, that he is capable of developing feelings for a woman whom he initially treats with contempt. Ultimately, the film's anchor is Alex, whose highest hope for life is not to feel pain, who never laughs and sees evil everywhere, and whose personality alters with brilliant-but-unmistakable subtlety.

Téchiné's development of Alex and Marie is masterful; Auteuil and Deneuve keep our attention riveted to the screen whenever they're on. And, while the director doesn't succeed in plumbing the emotional depths reached by Ma Saison Préferée, there are elements of Thieves that touch us nearly as forcefully -- those moments just aren't as plentiful. So, although Thieves is strong and keenly-insightful, it is the least imposing of Téchiné's trio of U.S. releases.

Thieves (France, 1996)

Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Profanity, Nudity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: French with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1