Thieves (Les Voleurs) (André Téchiné)

Rating: *** (out of ****)

Thieves -- Les Voleurs was the original French title, with "Thieves" more or less a direct translation -- belongs to a category of movies that I refer to as "the shruggers." You've experienced these: films that command your attention throughout, enveloping you in their distinctive worlds, involving you emotionally in the lives of their characters, and generally impressing the hell out of you; then, just when you're expecting some sort of dramatic, cathartic conclusion that will put everything you've seen in glorious perspective, they simply...end. Sometimes there's no sense of closure at all ("what, it's over?"); more often, the proffered wrapup is utterly unsatisfying, inelegantly halting the narrative in a manner neither unexpected nor inevitable ("if you say so, pal"). Either way, the credits begin to roll, and you find yourself staring blankly at the letters climbing the screen, shrugging your shoulders, and thinking, roughly, "Oooooooo-kay..." Téchiné's previous feature, Wild Reeds, was one of my favorite films of 1995, and Thieves (which reunites Daniel Auteuil and Catherine Deneuve, who played siblings in his fine Ma Saison Préférée a few years back) shares many of its strengths: exceptional performances; a keen understanding of human nature coupled with a remarkable attention to the details and intricacies of human relationships; a perfectly pitched tone, often melancholy but never maudlin; photography that illuminates without distracting. Moment to moment, it's every bit as engrossing as Wild Reeds, but where that film was refreshingly direct and unpretentious, Thieves employs a needlessly literary structure, in which point-of-view shifts from character to character, each one getting a "chapter," as the narrative winds its serpentine, achronological way toward what passes ("if you say so, pal") for its conclusion. I'm a sucker for films that challenge narrative conventions, and what Téchiné does here is certainly intriguing (Faulkner's As I Lay Dying is the obvious precedent); but ultimately it seems arbitrary, promising a tidiness that the picture simply doesn't deliver. Not that such tidiness is mandatory, you understand; it's more that Thieves prepares you for the bang and then gives you a barely audible whimper. Nonetheless, well worth seeing; if only more movies began to disappoint me only in the final reel.