Home > Entertainment > Film
  print button email button

Friday, Sept. 22, 2000


The school of hard knocks

A young man stands in front of a mirror, boxing with himself. As he throws punch after punch in slow motion, it's clear that he's aping the beautifully rendered blood-sport of "Raging Bull." But it's also clear that he missed the point of that film entirely: He's imagining the glory of triumph in the boxing ring, but forgetting that De Niro played a case study in self-destruction.

Like Tyler Durden in "Fight Club," "S" -- the anonymous antihero of "Le Petit Voleur," a 61-minute blast from director Erick Zonca -- thinks that violence is the answer to all his problems: the doldrums of life in Orleans, and the feeling that there are better, wilder things to be doing at 20 than getting fired from a lousy bakery job.

Having a nice girl to go home to might be one of them, but S (played with a James Dean-like presence by Nicolas Duvauchelle) decides to start his big dreams on the edge by ripping off his girlfriend Sandra (Emilie Lafarge). He waits till she's asleep to steal an envelope full of money from her dresser and slip out the door; now we know why he couldn't look at her during sex.

Off to Marseilles -- Mecca for French chinpira -- S hooks up with a gang of toughs centered around a kick-boxing gym. They specialize in raiding upscale suburban homes, stripping them like a pack of locusts. S is taken on by ringleader Oeil (Jean-Jerome Esposito), but his dreams of criminal glamour are put in their place when he's given only menial jobs -- watching over prostitutes, or minding Oeil's aged mother.

S imagines himself a gangster, but compared to the whackos with tattoos and scars pummeling sandbags in the gym, it's clear that he's not going to cut it. We see S constantly checking himself out in the mirror, like a little boy, posing like a boxer or making a badass face. But that's where the difference lies: for S being hard is cool, a pose, a look. For the other guys, it's frighteningly real, something that S starts to learn the hard way.

He tries to be tough, even beating up his sole friend in the ring to impress his boss, deliberately taking advantage of his friend's broken rib. But in the end, his failure is a good thing. He isn't a sociopath like the others, and he does have a core of decency that we glimpse in the few scenes where he interacts with Oeil's mom, showing, almost despite himself, a tender respect for the old woman.

In denying his protagonist a name, Zonca makes S a stand-in for so many guys his age. In a sense, S is a dupe of his generation's role models; his pathology is that of a kid who's watched too many Tarantino films and listened to too much gangsta rap. S views combat, violence and theft as a more exciting, manly way of life than the routine of holding down a job, or the feminine needs of a relationship. Well, he lives his dream, but it ends up a nightmare.

"Le Petit Voleur" is a violent film, but unlike most American films (particularly "Fight Club," which shares many of the same themes) it never stylizes the violence: It is real, sudden and brutal. The viewer, like S, is forced to endure the demeaning, deadly nature of violence, and take a pounding. "Le Petit Voleur" dares to get in the face of Hollywood dreams of hard men and sexy violence and say: This is not what life is about -- this is about death. Like this year's Cannes-winner "Rosetta," "Le Petit Voleur" dares to build a context in which a 9-to-5 looks good.

Zonca's style is straight-up cinema verite: no soundtrack or showy lighting, just getting the camera in the right place at the right time. The performances he gets are madly explosive, beyond acting. What's interesting, though, is how his pacing builds it into something more, a lyrical approach in which details resonate and gradually coalesce into meaning.

Yet while Zonca adheres to a realist presentation, the end result reveals a very focused intellect. Unlike the mess that was Jang Sun-woo's "Bad Movie" (another recent foray into street kid desperation) "Le Petit Voleur" knows exactly where it's going. Zonca's brilliance is his balance between empathy and objectivity: While never manipulating the viewer, or forcing a perspective on us, the camera takes us so far into his characters' most private moments, that we can't help but feel for them, even as they screw up their lives beyond repair.

Zonca established himself with last year's "La Vie Revee des Anges" (No. 1 on this critic's top 10), which dealt with two girls -- one yin, one yang -- similarly on the desperate margins of urban existence. No other director is daring to veer so precipitously between hope and despair, dreams and death. You don't watch Zonca's films so much as scream silently and hope it doesn't hurt on impact. "Le Petit Voleur" will leave you reeling. A must-see . . . once.

"Le Petit Voleur" (Japanese title, "Sayonara S") opens tomorrow at Cine Amuse East/West in Shibuya.

Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.