An abrupt change of pace from "Wild Reeds," director Andre Techine's Cannes-competing "Thieves" (Les Voleurs) elevates a seemingly routine police drama into a "Rashomon"-style exploration of family and amorous ties. Handsomely and meticulously made, the film nonetheless appeals mostly to a rarefied audience.

An abrupt change of pace from “Wild Reeds,” director Andre Techine’s Cannes-competing “Thieves” (Les Voleurs) elevates a seemingly routine police drama into a “Rashomon”-style exploration of family and amorous ties. Handsomely and meticulously made, the film nonetheless appeals mostly to a rarefied audience. Even with the star casting of Catherine Deneuve, the film is unlikely to be a mainstream draw in France and will have fitful arthouse box office internationally.

Using the crime genre as a starting point, Techine sheds more and more of its conventions as the story proceeds. The drama is initially viewed from the perspective of Justin (Julien Riviere), a 10-year-old boy, awakened by noises, who wanders downstairs and is told his father has died.

The preamble abruptly shifts and Alex (Daniel Auteuil), a detective in Lyon, continues the story. He begins with his encounter with Juliette (Laurence Cote), a young woman whose brother works for Ivan (Didier Bezace), a crime boss and Alex’s brother. Ivan runs a popular club with a drag revue and fronts a car smuggling ring. There’s a telling encounter between the siblings on opposite sides of the law prior to the revelation that Ivan is the dead man of the prologue. Alex and Juliette carry on a tortured relationship, complicated by the young woman’s affair with Marie (Deneuve), a professor.

The three components of the triangle and the young boy serve as the different voices of the intricate story. The film has a mesmerizing narrative, partially because the incidents leading to Ivan’s murder are secondary to the drama. Eschewing the traditional whodunit frame, “Les Voleurs” evolves as a story about the impact of the death on the quartet, who would otherwise not have been brought together.

The film is a heady pursuit, demanding a chess master’s concentration. Techine’s structure is unrelenting and leaves the audience adrift from time to time as pieces of the puzzle are introduced. He’s steadfast about not favoring any one of the four primary characters, allowing the viewer to decide where to place emphasis. While a knockout of fluid direction, the technical virtuosity never stands in the way of the highly emotional plot.

The natural beauty of Lyon is a stunning environment, but the pic doesn’t succumb to postcard prettiness. Both Auteuil and Deneuve, previously paired in Techine’s “Ma Saison Preferee,” handle roles that stretch their repertoire. The actress particularly shines in a non-glamorous role. Cote has the flashiest role as the strong-willed Juliette, and Riviere proves to be an outstanding find as the boy.

“Thieves” is a disturbing mix of crime and passion — an eerie yarn that resonates long after the last images flicker. Still, the mix doesn’t quite fit into an entertaining package and will result in spotty theatrical fortunes in France and abroad.

Thieves

French

Production

Studio Canal Plus presents a BAC Films release of a Films Alain Sarde/TF1 Films/Rhone-Alpes Cinema/D.A. Films production. (International sales: Studio Canal Plus.) Produced by Alain Sarde. Directed by Andre Techine. Screenplay, Techine, Gilles Taurand, in collaboration with Michel Alexandre.

Crew

Camera (Eastman color), Jeanne Lapoirie; editor, Martine Giodano; music, Philippe Sarde; art direction, Ze Branco; costume design, Elisabeth Tavernier; sound (Dolby SR), Jean-Pierre Laforce; assistant director, Michel Nasri. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 17, 1996. Running time: 118 min.

With

Alex - Daniel Auteuil
Marie Leblanc - Catherine Deneuve
Juliette Fontana - Laurence Cote
Jimmy Fontana - Benoit Magimel
Justin - Julien Riviere
Ivan - Didier Bezace
Mireille - Fabienne Babe
Victor - Ivan Desny
Fred - Pierre Perez
Regis - Regis Betoule
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