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 Juliette (Laurence Cote). Justin views his uncle Alex with suspicion that borders on loathing--indeed, Alex is regarded as a black sheep by the entire clan: He is a cop from a family of thieves.
No sooner is this established than the time frame leaps backward. Juliette, a shoplifter, is interrogated at the police station by a cold 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 at the club. 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, a 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.
This disjointed structure--one in which the audience's experience is determined not by the story logic or internal chronology but, arbitrarily, by directorial "whim"--is familiar 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.
Techine is on a roll these days, with Wild Reeds, which won last year's L.A. Film Critics' Association award for Best Foreign Language Film, and the excellent My Favorite Season, also starring Auteuil and Deneuve, which was released here earlier this year. 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 is irresistible.
Thieves and films like Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction, Before the Rain, and Three Lives and Only One Death remind us that the American film industry's insistence on straight-ahead, conventional narrative is not the only way to tell a story--not that you'd know it in Hollywood.
Thieves (Les Voleurs).
Daniel Auteuil, Catherine Deneuve, Laurence Cote, Benoit Magimel, Fabienne Babe, Didier Bezace, and Julien Riviere. Written by Andre Techine and Gilles Taurand, in collaboration with Michel Alexandre and Pascal Bonitzer. Directed by Techine. Opens Friday.