When Francois Truffaut died in 1984 at the tragically young age of 52, he left a hole in the world of the cinema that can never be filled. Happily, he also left a series of masterpieces—Jules and Jim, Day for Night, Two English Girls—that will keep his presence, his large and generous soul, with us always.
As it turns out, he left us with something else: a screenplay, written with collaborator Claude de Givray. The Little Thief is a project Truffaut had wanted to make as early as the mid-1960s, when he proposed it as a female version of his first feature, 1959’s The 400 Blows, which was also about a lost, adolescent rebel.
Now The Little Thief has been realized by some of Truffaut’s friends, including Claude Miller, who was Truffaut’s assistant for years before becoming a director himself. Miller does not have the master’s touch, and The Little Thief can’t technically be counted as a Truffaut movie per se. But Miller captures the spirit of his former mentor enough so that Truffaut’s hand is well evident.
The protagonist is a 16-year-old named Janine (Charlotte Gainsbourg, an expressive actress whom Truffaut would have adored), abandoned by her parents, who lives with her poor uncle and aunt in the French countryside of the early 1950s. When we first see Janine, she is swiping a carton of Lucky Strikes from an unlocked car. Janine steals things.
This habit gets her sent away to work as a maid. Janine fails in love, first with an older married man (Didier Bezace), then with a teenage rebel (Simon de la Brasse) who has a motorcycle. Her troubles include a stay in reform school, but she is a survivor.
The movie has many wonderful moments, recalling Truffaut’s romantic sensibility: Janine at a movie theater, falling asleep on the shoulder of a stranger who will become her lover; Janine stealing a volume of Victor Hugo from a bookstore; the biker’s trick of flipping cigarettes in his mouth.
Like the hero of The 400 Blows, Janine eventually ends up at the ocean, which she sees for the first time. “I didn’t expect that color,” she says quietly, gazing at the water, perfectly capturing the adolescent’s mix of wonder and disappointment; a moment evocative of Truffaut at his most characteristic. All in all, a perfectly lovely time at the movies.
First published in the Herald, September 1989
A nice movie, though it seems to have been forgotten. Gainsbourg went on to her international career, as could hardly be avoided from the daughter of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, including her place in the realm of Lars von Trier.