The narrative of Andre Techine's Les Voleurs (Thieves) opens shortly after the story's climax. A gangster's corpse is brought to his isolated home; his widow grieves; his eight-year-old son silently assimilates the news; a few mourners arrive.
The climactic scene is the bungled caper during which the gangster has been shot. This scene -- withheld until roughly two-thirds through -- is the film's least important and most important moment. It's the least important in that it reveals nothing but plot trivia; the most important because it is the defining event that sets in motion all future events and redefines everything that has preceded. The story is nothing more than a history of certain relationships, the ill-fated crime and its aftermath. The narrative, however, is a nonchronological drama in which the story's elements are parceled out to the audience in an order and manner that determine the film's emphases.
The first five minutes are from the point of view of Justin (Julien Riviere), the son of Ivan (Didier Bezace), the gangster. Among the arriving mourners are Ivan's brother Alex (Daniel Auteuil) and his "date," Juliette (Laurence Cote). Justin views his uncle Alex with suspicion that borders on loathing -- asking, in essence, "Why are you here now, when you and my father always hated each other?" Indeed, Alex is regarded as a black sheep by the entire clan: He is a turncoat, a cop from within a family of thieves.
No sooner is this established than the time frame leaps backward, with the superimposed legend, "Alex, one year before his brother's death." Juliette, a shoplifter, is interrogated at the police station by the cold, hardened Alex. Although she is sullen and uncooperative, Alex decides to give her a break. He releases her with a warning.
A few months thereafter, Ivan -- resurrected through the miracle of narrative discontinuity -- insists that Alex visit him at his new nightclub, Mic Mac. Once there, the reluctant Alex, who has no tolerance for his brother's lifestyle, is further appalled to encounter Juliette, once again hanging around a bad type (namely, Ivan). When Alex leaves, she pursues him and ends up initiating an affair. Alex, suspicious of everything related to his brother's world, guesses that Ivan is behind the whole thing; in truth, when Ivan learns of the relationship, Juliette becomes suspect for sleeping with a cop, even if the cop is his own brother.
Twenty minutes of Alex's point of view bring us back to the first sequence, the arrival of mourners at Ivan's house, from a different angle. Afterward, Juliette freaks out: She was part of the bungled caper with Ivan; therefore, her lover, who prides himself on being all cop, is going to be compromised. She flees to the arms of her other lover, philosophy professor Marie (Catherine Deneuve).
The film then switches briefly to Marie's perspective before leaping backward six months again to retell things from Juliette's perspective, taking us again up to Ivan's death, including (for the first time) the fatal robbery.
There are eventually two more such time/point of view leaps, mostly covering the consequences of Ivan's death. This disjointed structure -- one in which the audience's experience is determined not by the story's logic or internal chronology but, arbitrarily, by directorial "whim" -- is not entirely unusual in these post-Pulp Fiction days. Techine's intent is similar to, but infinitely better realized than, that of Christopher Hampton in his recent adaptation of Conrad's The Secret Agent.
Both are telling crime stories in which the content of the crime itself is unimportant; only the interpersonal fabric surrounding it is of interest. Both stories are concerned with the real families and false families (such as the gang) and the powerful tensions implicit in involuntary blood relations. The issues are the same as in A Better Tomorrow or a million Warner Bros. films from the '30s, albeit in a much more realistic mode. The story and setting also inevitably invoke Shoot the Piano Player, in which the idea of the straight renegade from a family of crooks is lightly touched upon.
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Techine is on a roll these days, with Wild Reeds, which won last year's Los Angeles Film Critics' Association award for Best Foreign Language Film, and the excellent My Favorite Season, also starring Auteuil and Deneuve. Thieves continues his streak. Auteuil is a master at expressing inner life to the audience through a repressed facade that often makes him opaque to the other characters. Age has, if anything, made Deneuve even more effective as a complacent bourgeoise fighting inner turbulence. And Cote has a punkish, Kate Moss-gone-bad quality that's irresistible.
But most of all, Thieves is -- like Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction, Before the Rain and Three Lives and Only One Death -- a reminder of how limiting the movie industry's insistence on crystal-clear, conventional narrative is. The straight-ahead, obvious way to tell a story is often, possibly most of the time, the most effective narrative model. But it's far from the only narrative model -- not that you'd know it in Hollywood.
Les Voleurs (Thieves).
Directed by Andre Techine. With Daniel Auteuil, Catherine Deneuve, Laurence Cote and Benoit Magimel.