Published February 1, 1997
Thieves by André Téchiné, is one of those films where the artistic means completely overpower the narrative ends. Here we have multiple narrators, shifts backward and forward in time, several brooding, complex, mysterious characters and a tangle of unexplained plot details trailing off into philosophical conversations full of gnomic utterance. And all for what? To tell the story of two brothers, Alex (Daniel Auteuil) and Ivan (Didier Bezace), one a cop and one a crook, who hate each other but love (well, engage in sexual intercourse with) the same woman. All the heavy freightage of artistry is to supply the place of what, in an old-fashioned, plot- driven movie, would have been the scene where the two come into mortal conflict at a climactic moment of intersection between private and public. Téchiné must have forgotten to put that part in. Instead, one of them is killed in a car theft that goes wrong, but nothing much else happens.
The death matters only to the man’s small son, Justin (Julien Rivière), who narrates two of the segments but of whom we see really very little, and presumably his wife, Mireille (Fabienne Babé) and father (Ivan Desny), of whom we see even less. In short, Techiné has assembled a mass of materials here, a possibly interesting situation and characters, but he does nothing with them. All anybody does is strike attitudes. A good emblem of the film’s dissipation of its resources is in the scene when Justin, after his father’s death, finds a gun that he had hidden away in the house. He carefully removes it from its hiding place, takes it outside to a shed and hides it there under a floorboard. That’s the last we ever see of it. This may be a deliberate snub to whichever theorist of the well-made play said that when you show a gun in Act I you had better make sure it gets used in Act III, but apart from that it seems to have no other function.
Or rather, it has the function that almost everything else has, which is the creation of a vague atmosphere of noirish doubt, despair, hatred, cynicism and barely suppressed violence. But the film affords a redundant demonstration of the principle that atmosphere alone will not make a movie watchable. It is perfectly in keeping with the atmosphere that Alex should start having joyless and unloving sex with Juliette (Laurence Côte), a young girl who is picked up for shop-lifting and whom he then lets go, or that he is divorced from his wife because he believes that “these days, having kids is crazy,” or that he takes three showers a day and before and after sex, that he hates sharing his bed, that “a naked body holds no interest for me,” that he dislikes youth, etc etc. These are some of the trappings of the noir hero. Likewise, it makes sense that Juliette should also be having a lesbian affair with her philosophy professor, Marie (Catherine Deneuve), a grandmother who drinks whisky in the morning, and that she should be drawn into the ill-fated car theft by her ascetic car thief brother, Jimmy (Benoit Magimel). But these things only make sense because they are part of the latter-day noir complex. They have no narrative purpose.
Likewise, it comes as no surprise that the crook brother runs a night-club featuring drag queens as a money-laundering front, or that we expect and get a certain amount of deep thinking from the professor of philo, who takes the hard bitten philistine cop to see Mozart’s Magic Flute and then explains her own emotion at it (he is unaffected) with reference to the faint hope of love it presents in a dead and dark universe. Above all, it makes sense that the cop should think the philo prof out of touch but have a secret crush on her, that the philo prof should be writing a book of Juliette’s life from extensive tapes of conversation with her, and that she, the philo prof, should finally kill herself for no apparent reason and send the tapes and the ms of the book to the cop.
I could go on. If all these elements had been presented to us on a multiple choice test, we should have had no difficulty in picking them out as the right ones for a French noir thriller—or not thriller, exactly, since nothing much happens. There is not, as in the more old-fashioned Chabrol’s La Ceremonie any narrative tension or build-up of suspense. Instead, there is a parade of atmospheric images which, by themselves, are as boring as the French Europop music which is played at the nightclub. I thought for a moment that this would be contrasted with Mozart in some way, but it is not. Like nearly everything else in the film, they just exist side by side.
It’s true that, near the end, a slight narrative breeze springs up to fill our sails. Alex surprises himself by keeping silent when he has the knowledge to involve his family in the fatal car theft. But it is pretty clear that this is simply out of an unexpected attachment to Juliette and not family feeling. There is not, in any case, any moment of high drama where conflicting impulses—hate for his brother, estrangement from his father, his duty as a cop—are all balanced against his love and loyalty to Juliette. Such an overt contest of loyalties would raise the film onto a different plane, one in which narrative direction would become more important than attitudes. And it is attitudes which interest Téchiné.