The Little Thief

Pared down to raw formula, French director Erick Zonca's two features, 1998's The Dreamlife Of Angels and 1999's The Little Thief—as well as his 1997 short, Alone, which accompanies the latter—are more or less the same movie. Strongly leftist, set in urban-industrial squalor, and photographed with handheld cameras using mostly natural light, each covers the miserable day-in-the-life routines of young protagonists disillusioned by their dead-end menial jobs. But, predictable as they are in overarching design, Zonca's films are nervy and constantly surprising, charged with a palpable tension of uncertainty, a true sense of life being improvised by the second. With his fine, almost childlike features and an underlying sensitivity that belies his rage, newcomer Nicolas Duvauchelle unmistakably echoes James Dean as the ne'er-do-well hero of The Little Thief. Frustrated by his soul-crushing job as a baker's apprentice, Duvauchelle gets himself fired and takes to the streets, determined to leave the service industry behind and be his own boss. But the disparity between his righteousness and his morality leads to dire consequences when he hooks up with Marseilles gangsters who ironically have a management system as oppressive as any in the workaday world. Since it focuses so intently on a single protagonist with few friends, all extremely tenuous, The Little Thief lacks much of the fascinating psychology of Élodie Bouchez and Natalie Réginier's unforgettable relationship in Dreamlife. But as Duvauchelle gets in ever further over his head, an air of dread settles in that's charged with horrific possibilities. While it's clear from the start that his fate is sealed, the whens and hows are unpredictable, leading to acts of violence staged so matter-of-factly, they seem almost shockingly real. With The Little Thief clocking in at a tight 65 minutes, its distributor has generously added Zonca's earlier Alone, another tale of youthful desperation that could be a precursor to the Dardenne Brothers' Rosetta. Unemployed, homeless, and fiercely determined, Florence Loiret also considers a life of crime when a loaded handgun literally drops in her lap. Though slight and not especially ambitious, Zonca's brisk, unsentimental short subject proves that his talent for showing life on the fly was fully formed even before he got into features.

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