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Dueling Dualities

Isabelle Weingarten

The Policeman and Professor: Daniel Auteuil and Catherine Deneuve discuss the metaphysics of crime in André Téchiné's "Thieves."

A French cop answers the call
of ambiguity in 'Thieves'

By Richard von Busack

PREVIOUSLY, André Téchiné's films (imported here after his international success with Wild Reeds) seemed to stand for everything the mass audience hated about French films: sterility, cold-blooded precision, talkiness. Even the alabaster composure of late-period Catherine Deneuve made you feel that you were watching a documentary about the Venus de Milo.

In his brilliant new picture, Thieves (Les Voleurs), Téchiné has made the most interesting, original and metaphysically complex movie about cops and robbers since The Usual Suspects. Using a tantalizing, out-of-sequence structure, Téchiné tells a compelling story about a self-destructive, confused young woman caught halfway between the law and lawlessness, whose disappearance mirrors the death of a noted criminal.

Thieves is set in Lyon, the Chicago of France, a tough second city, rude and rattled with traffic. When the antihero, Alex (Daniel Auteuil), a police detective, first sees the boyish Juliette (Laurence Côte), she's under arrest for shoplifting perfume. She makes a pass at Alex, which grows into episodes of harsh, impersonal trysts.

At one session, Juliette shows Alex a tattoo next to her sex that reads "Marie." In fact, she's not just androgynous but bisexual. The girl is carrying on an affair with Marie (Deneuve), a philosophy professor. When Juliette disappears, Alex looks up Marie and tries to find out more about his missing lover.

What I'm describing sounds didactic, a cut-and-dried conflict between different ways of shaping the world--of law vs. philosophy as methods to make sense of life. Indeed, duality is a scheme throughout Thieves. Téchiné even stages the movie to make the seasons oppose each other: Thieves seems to take place only in the height of summer or the depth of winter.

But Téchiné makes the theme of duality organic, putting it in the background instead of the foreground, and using it to discuss his usual fascination with conflicted family life. The old movie plot device of two brothers--one a cop, one a criminal--only strengthens the story.

Alex is maybe too intense, too isolated, to be a cop. Auteuil looks like the younger Harvey Keitel, before his neurotic quality was dispelled, perhaps forever, into the serenity he displayed in The Piano. But unlike Keitel in (for example) Bad Lieutenant, Auteuil never becomes unbottled, never realizes how he's numbed himself.

Alex's brother, Ivan (Didier Bezace), a successful criminal whose death begins the story, says, in flashback, that Alex is "a crackpot." Téchiné doesn't play the judgment for irony. Alex is kind of a crackpot, having chosen police work primarily as a way of revenging himself on his family--and on his family's white-collar auto-theft business. By contrast, Ivan is shady, but he's raisonnable. When Ivan has to show some authority to his second in command, he doesn't strike the man, he just says, gruffly, "I hate saying, 'I'm the boss.' It's so tacky."

In Téchiné's Ma Saison Preferee, Deneuve was a securely wrapped bundle of malaise. Marie, by contrast, is fallible; there are flesh, blood and weaknesses here (and a taste for whiskey in the morning). In loving the very tough but temperamental Juliette, she's taking the sort of risk to which only the high-minded will expose themselves.

Téchiné's approach to this professor doesn't make her a sacred figure of learning; he gives us some of the key to her through Alex, who notes aloud that her book didn't sell at all. In this frailty, Deneuve is attractive again--and when I had a shadow of doubt about what a philosophy professor would see in rough trade like Juliette, I reminded myself of Foucault's attraction to leather boys.

MORAL AMBIGUITY in cop movies is often a way of flirting with sin before squaring things with the audience. It's fun to see a talented stripper--or Fargo, for that matter, which, after some vacillation, also made its feelings on the law clear in a memorable ending.

Téchiné has done something higher than Fargo; he keeps Thieves entertaining and ambiguous to the end. If you see it, you'll spend days afterward turning it over in your mind. But Téchiné does not lead you into a philosophical maze; his musings are grounded in a subtle, smart and humane crime story.

The sacrifice of the cop or the detective, his alienation from life, is often played for tone and pathos, especially in American movies from about 1945 to Dirty Harry. Here, Alex's alienation seems a matter of temperament, of his approach to life. That's the French gift to the movies--characters who have their reasons, undaunted by the moral values that so often sink American movies as deep as the Bismarck.

Thieves (Les Voleurs) (R; 117 min.), directed by André Téchiné, written by Gilles Taurand and Téchiné, photographed by Jeanne Lapoirie and starring Catherine Deneuve, Daniel Auteuil and Laurence Côte.

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From the January 16-22, 1997 issue of Metro

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