The Little Thief

March 18, 2013

littlethiefWhen 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.


Confidentially Yours

August 28, 2012

Francois Truffaut’s Confidentially Yours would like to be a good bottle of champagne: giddy, nutty and dry. But Truffaut may have left the cork out of the bottle too long.

He’s been devoting his time to dark, serious movies lately—such as the little-seen The Green Room and The Woman Next Door—and perhaps he’s forgotten how to create his special kind of magic.

Not that Truffaut has ever been merely bubbly; but even in primarily dramatic movies such as Jules and Jim and Day for Night, he conveys a wonderful sense of the joys of life and the movies, although those joys sometimes turn out to be fleeting.

Confidentially Yours self-consciously tries to recapture some of the magic; it’s a knockabout whodunit, with lots of clever twists and turns and a pair of engaging performances from Fanny Ardant and Jean-Louis Trintignant.

It’s being pushed as a kind of homage to the American film noir genre that Truffaut loved so much when he was a young film critic. Actually, this movie doesn’t bear much resemblance to the feverish fatalism of film noir; it’s much more of a lark. And Truffaut has always been too loose-limbed a director to really recreate an American style, which he tries to do periodically. He’s much more successful on his own idiosyncratic turf.

Anyway, Trintignant plays a businessman who is accused of murder. The evidence is persuasive: First his wife’s lover is found shot to death; then just a few hours later, Trintignant’s wife is herself the victim of the killer.

We can’t be absolutely sure that Trintignant is not guilty; that’s part of the tease. So the focus shifts to his feisty secretary (Ardant), who determinedly sets out to find the murderer herself—while the boss hides out in the rear of his realty office.

Misadventures ensue as Ardant somehow bumbles her way to the solution. Confidentially Yours is something of a showcase for the leggy Ardant, who is Truffaut’s current discovery. She gets to go undercover, crack wise, and generally handle herself as a Rosalind Russell-style girl Friday, whose combative relationship with her boss may be hiding more affectionate feelings.

She proves more resourceful than the local police—who aren’t amused when she keeps turning up at the scenes of murders.

If the police are not amused, the viewer may be, as Truffaut alternates the detective work with whimsical interludes. It’s all sort of cute and predictable, and it’s enjoyable as a cat-and-mouse exercise, if a rather flat one.

But Truffaut seems to be trying a bit too hard to make up for his recent moody work; as though he were nudging the audience and saying, “See? I can still be charming.” There were times when I had the feeling we were being clobbered over the head with light-heartedness. And that isn’t a good feeling.

First published in the Herald, January 26, 1984

Truffaut did not survive the year, and this was his last film, although nobody knew that at the time. I have never watched it again. If it’s not one of his best films—and his best films are among the best anybody ever made—at least it stands as a tribute to a woman, and a tribute to movies, which are two things Truffaut knew something about. I think I know what I mean by “loose-limbed” style, even if I don’t express it particularly well in the space of a newspaper review. Truffaut was rigorous, but even when he would do a Hitchcock or a science-fiction picture (or a film noir, as in Mississippi Mermaid), the results didn’t really resemble the work of his models, but they did look like Truffaut movies.