Andre Techine's Les Voleurs (Thieves) is stuffed with sex, blood and grand-theft auto, and at its heart lurks a homicide detective who's deeply compromised himself in the investigation of a big case. But before anyone gets the wrong idea, please note that neither Clint Eastwood nor Arnold Schwarzenegger got within 5,000 kilometers of Techine's set, and the beautiful mystery woman of the piece is a philosophy professor, played by the ageless Catherine Deneuve, who holds forth to her students on the nature of aggression and desire.
Said another way, the French erotic thriller has returned to America with a sublime vengeance. If you like crooks and cops afflicted with complex disorders, love affairs that describe triangles and dueling points of view that come at you with Rashomon intensity, this is a film for you. If, in addition, you think Freud and Jung still belong in the getaway car, head on down to the multiplex, mon ami.
It's about time, don't you reckon? In the salad days of the Sixties and Seventies, a healthy French film industry populated by top-drawer auteurs kept art-house audiences on this side of the Atlantic amply supplied with heady cat-and-mouse games combining Gallic lust, Gallic crime and Gallic thought. Now that the flow is a trickle, we must be grateful for every Techine who's able to smuggle one of his gems out of the country as if it were a precious bag of truffles.
To cases. Imagine, at the beginning, the mysterious death of a husband and father. Imagine his curious--and curiously detached--little son. Think of the dead man's alienated brother, Alex (Daniel Auteuil), a policeman who's been conducting a destructive affair with a hardened young shoplifter named Juliette (Laurence Cote). Then consider that the shoplifter has been conducting a simultaneous, lesbian affair with her philosophy teacher. And that Juliette's brother Jimmy (Benoit Magimel) is mixed up in all kinds of shady business with the dead man, who is the brother of the wound-tight cop, who happens to be sleeping with Jimmy's sister.
Now imagine that the story is told, in tantalizing bits and pieces, by four different narrators--using a relentless European dazzle of flashbacks and flash-forwards.
Not to worry. Writer/director Techine, a thirty-year veteran of the cinema wars who's probably best known in this country for 1994's Wild Reeds, handles disparate elements, shifting psychological states and complicated plotting with the ease of a master chef throwing together a Sunday afternoon daube. All in good time, his lovely tangles of desire, guilt, betrayal and tragedy become as transparent as glass. In the process, he stirs the mind and the senses in ways that Jean-Claude Van Damme has never conceived of. Suffice it to say that the old, festering antagonism between slain Ivan (Didier Bezace) and his neat-freak brother Alex are crucial to the stew, as are the constantly shifting erotic rivalries in Les Voleurs and the ways in which criminal instinct is passed down from a father to a son and, through a surrogate father, to a grandson.
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It wouldn't do to reveal much more. To my mind, Techine has crafted a masterpiece of atmosphere and created enough dark tension to keep two dozen assorted love affairs and major felonies simmering away for the rest of the year. As Marie, the enigmatic professor, La Deneuve is matchless--as always--and pint-sized Julien Riviere practically rewrites the book on pre-adolescent acting with his little tour de force. The familiar Auteuil has appeared in practically every French movie since sound came in, and his unsettling portrait of station-house repression here could retire the trophy.
To summarize: Les Voleurs is rare mystery and fascinating intrigue in the highest French style, fashioned by an artist we Americans get far too little of. Let it steal your eye and mind.
Les Voleurs. Screenplay by Andre Techine and Gilles Taurand. Directed by Andre Techine. With Daniel Auteuil, Laurence Cote, Catherine Deneuve and Julien Riviere.