WITHOUT PROSPECTS, just fired from his menial bakery job, a surly teen boasts to his girl, "I won't be anyone's slave again! From now on, I'm the one screwing others!" That's about the last dialogue we hear from unnamed wanna-be tough guy "S" (Nicolas Duvauchelle) once he becomes a hanger-on and flunky in a Marseille gang. He's lowest in the criminal pecking order, forced to clean house for his boss' aged mother between smash-and-grab robberies.
THE LITTLE THIEF
written and directed by Erick Zonca
starring Nicolas Duvauchelle runs July 7-13 at Varsity
Who's the slave now? Erick Zonca doesn't bother making such ironies explicit in this short, almost documentary-like study of misguided French youth. We simply observe these petty criminals hanging around their kickboxing gym, while the now-quiet kid tries to ingratiate himself with the goons. They become his surrogate family, and another young apprentice his surrogate brother. In one of the film's few light moments, the two try to explain where they're originally from. "Up in the middle," one feebly attempts, without any idea of French geography. They can barely do three-figure math to calculate the earnings of a whore also working for their boss. They're idiots in a pathetic, squalid milieu, and Zonca doesn't give it any false glamour or excitement. Gone in 60 Seconds this is not.
Instead, by simply concentrating on the kid's dull routine, then abruptly, violently shattering it, Zonca is painting a characteristically Gallic moral tale. It's not "crime doesn't pay," but something more like "he is what society has made him." The kid is hopelessly uneducated, seemingly an orphan, a wastrel haplessly fallen into Mean Streets instead of Oliver Twist. Forget about any kind of a safety net. Thief is in this way one of those "J'accuse" denunciations of society, without bothering to actually utter the words. Zonca merely shows the initially undramatic facts of this case, using lots of hand-held camera, which lends to its doc-like quality.
This underplayed, matter-of-fact presentation inevitably recalls Robert Bresson (L'Argent in particular), as minor acts have major consequences. Boyishly handsome in a Chet Baker kind of way, the kid is occasionally likable (as when he makes like Bruce Lee in private), occasionally a cold-blooded cad—in other words, a work in progress, a teen whose conscience hasn't yet formed. He could go either way, which is Zonca's point. Thief isn't so engaging or accessible as Zonca's better-known, Cannes award-winning The Dreamlife of Angels, but its austerity and brevity suit its surprising and oddly just conclusion.