Rob a bank and you’re scum. Rob a museum and you’re scum with a dash of sophistication and an incredible amount of cunning. Yes, Rebecca Dreyfus’ Stolen joins The Thomas Crown Affairs, Entrapment, and even Oceans 12 on the long list of flicks that portray stealing works of art as an especially glamorous and elevated form of crime. Her freshman documentary explores the mystery of the 1990 robbery of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The band of thieves who overtook the guards and made off with 13 masterworks on a mid-March morning have yet to be found. And the whereabouts of each painting, collectively believed to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, is still unknown.
Gardner, a grande dame who loved all things Italian, established her museum in 1903 and designed it to evoke a Venetian palazzo. She meticulously laid out her collection and dictated that nothing about the museum should ever be changed—a result, some speculate in the film, of the death of Gardner’s 2-year-old son and her subsequent desire never to lose something she loved again. Dreyfus weaves a minibiography of Gardner throughout Stolen, focusing on her passionate disposition, magnetic personality, and allegedly impressive figure.
Dreyfus no doubt included this character study to help round out the 85-minute movie, but it’s also an effective way to make this particular heist seem personal. Who, for example, could remain unmoved watching Frank DiMaria, a Gardner gallery attendant, tell Dreyfus of when he first saw John Singer Sargent’s portrait of the founder at age 13—and then reveal that she telepathically told him, “You’re mine, and you’ll know me all your life”? OK, the guy’s a little wild-eyed, and he goes so far as to say Gardner “adopted” him, but it’s still touching.
Stolen also includes commentary from a variety of experts, including Tom Mashberg, a Boston Herald reporter who spent a year trying to chase down one of the Gardner’s missing Rembrandts, and Tracy Chevalier, a Vermeer enthusiast who wrote the novel Girl With a Pearl Earring. (The most valuable painting snatched was Vermeer’s The Concert, which gets significant explication here.) But it’s 75-year-old art detective Harold Smith who provides the documentary’s real narrative momentum as Dreyfus tails him dissecting the case that became his obsession. A genial, quick-witted man who’s rarely dressed in anything but a suit and bowler hat, Smith livens up a story that could have easily become torpid and pedantic.
The director allows a little of Smith’s personal life into the film, which was unavoidable: The gumshoe wears an eye patch, a prosthetic nose, and bandages that seem to be the only things holding together the patchy flesh of his face. Cancer is the cause; remarkably, Smith has battled the illness for decades, in the process undergoing an experimental dry-skin treatment as a young Marine.
Granted, this has nothing to do with the crime. But watching the disease-riddled, restlessly curious man in action is fascinating. When he’s talking with Stolen’s several notorious art thieves—one of whom, William Youngworth, is particularly brash in his declaration that, if the government guaranteed amnesty, it’d get the paintings within 30 minutes—his desire for knowledge and drive to solve puzzles beam as brightly as the sun. The film’s only distraction from the consistently compelling investigation is Dreyfus and Albert Maysles’ often annoying camerawork: Faces are zoomed in on so tightly that it can be Ed Wood–esque, and once in a while interviewees suddenly start bobbling. But the unnecessary stylization never approaches the level of that in Jessica Yu’s In the Realms of the Unreal, which animated Henry Darger’s already movement-filled illustrations.
Granted, the film can occasionally seem parodically snooty, especially when Blythe Danner delivers her arch readings of Gardner’s letters to her art procurer, Bernard Berenson (voiced by the excellently cast Campbell Scott). And eyes may roll when one interview subject pronounces the theft “unconscionable”—this is, after all, a world filled with rape, murder, and war—and another melodramatically claims that the museum is “now touched with evil.” (A more objective assessment comes from Mashberg, who simply says the heist was “rude.”) But between the parade of did-they-or-didn’t-they crooks and the wild directions the investigation takes—Smith finds fingers pointing to the IRA, Sen. Edward Kennedy, and the Catholic Church, among others—Stolen is about as philistine-pleasing as an art doc can be. CSI: Fine Art? Not quite. But it’s glamorously close.
Writer-director Ra’up McGee’s debut feature, Autumn, is also a crime story—supposedly. A repeated flashback shows a red leaf falling in slow motion as a blank-faced kid beats a drum. A bad guy rummaging through a trash bin somberly tells a startled street urchin, “Every day I wake up frightened. Like you.” The characters most often communicate not by dialogue but by gazing into each other’s eyes. In other words, this is a mystery trapped in an et cetera.
It’s a puzzle to be solved, certainly, but McGee provides few useful pieces. The flashback, which takes place in a forest, at least reveals that Jean-Pierre (Laurent Lucas); his girlfriend, Michelle (Irène Jacob); and his best friend, Andre (Benjamin Rolland), have known one another since they were kids. Beyond that, how most events and characters connect to each other is anybody’s guess.
Michelle delivers parts of explosives for Hugo (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), a slobbery dude who attacks her while giving her an English lesson. Jean-Pierre is apparently familiar with him, because he knows exactly where to go for retaliation after seeing Michelle’s black eye. Noël (Michel Aumont), a crime boss, hangs with the young and perpetually unsmiling Veronique (Dinara Droukarova), who is likely an assassin, though it’s hard to tell because she repeatedly backs out on killing anybody. There are also a couple of kids who rough up someone or other when necessary. Andre borrows money from everybody, which seems to be the impetus for a lot of violence.
There’s also a mysteriously important Pulp Fiction–esque briefcase involved; naturally, its contents and location are unknown to those who want it most. Noël seems to be the owner, but maybe not. Either way, a few case-seeking characters eventually turn from being merely criminally inclined to executing double- and triple-crosses, at which point the audience will probably be just about ready for a good old-fashioned art heist.
The actors are suitably intense, especially Lucas and Jacob, whose comely couple spend a lot of time in the bathtub together. And though Hugo and Noël are one-dimensional, Dreyfus and Aumont inarguably elicit, respectively, disgust and the fear of God. But the spare film’s images are more evocative than either its characterizations or its narrative. A warehouse that Michelle and Jean-Pierre find themselves in is stark contrast to her warm, light-filled apartment. And where better to have a showdown than in a dark Métro station? The problem with McGee’s twin homage to Bresson and Tarantino is that its characters look great on a deserted beach but tend to use guns only to smack or oh-so-briefly intimidate people, not to shoot them. Even the pacifists in the audience might grow impatient.
Ditto for anyone not enamored of austere enigma. If only McGee’s characters would talk a bit more—and not about Brittany’s delicious crepes, the topic of a conversation that decides whether a couple of outlaws will travel together. “You don’t have to say anything,” Michelle tells Jean-Pierre—but that’s one unambiguous statement Autumn could do without. CP