City Paper is not for tourists
Alex (Daniel Auteuil) is a policeman and Ivan (Didier Bezace) is a car thief, but cop-and-robbers is not the essential relationship in Thieves (Les Voleurs), the latest film from director/co-writer Andre Téchiné. Alex and Ivan—like the protagonists of Ma Saison Préférée, the 1993 Téchiné film released last year in the U.S.—are siblings, and Thieves (co-written by Gilles Taurand) is essentially a family drama. In Téchiné films, of course, family relationships are never straightforward, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that Ivan is already dead when the film opens.
Composed of several chapters that take place before and after Ivan’s death, Thieves is as Cartesian as Alex, the chilly Lyons detective who (like the Auteuil character in Ma Saison Préférée) is a hyperrational oddball with just one spot of passion in his life. Estranged from his family—he’s the only cop in a clan of thieves—he lives a solitary life, careful not to be seen drinking in any of the cafes near the police station. After interrogating a combative, androgynous shoplifter, Juliette (Laurence Côte), he begins a brusque affair with her, “united by mutual contempt.” They meet in hotels for quick, fierce sex, conducted with a minimum of disrobing. “I don’t like naked bodies,” Alex tells Juliette; she, in turn, refuses to visit “a cop’s apartment.”
Unknowingly, Alex has moved closer to his family; Juliette is Ivan’s former mistress and the sister of Ivan’s lieutenant, Jimmy (A Single Girl’s Benoit Magimel). The young woman also becomes Alex’s connection to Marie (Catherine Deneuve, who played Auteuil’s sister in Ma Saison Préférée), a philosophy professor who is Juliette’s other lover. (Their love scene is much more tender than the one with Alex.) Concerned by Juliette’s increasingly precarious behavior, the two older lovers form an alliance to help her. Both in analytic professions, the two agree that Juliette would be better off in a new life. The seemingly calm Marie is not as detached as Alex, however. She takes separation from Juliette harder than he does.
With two families in play, Thieves bristles with Oedipal tension. Alex jousts with his brother and quarrels with his father (Ivan Desny), and then attempts to develop a relationship with his young nephew Justin (Julien Rivere), who’s been taught to hate cops. An incestuous erotic charge crackles between Juliette and Jimmy, an ambitious outlaw who insists he’s outgrown sex. New but powerful rivalries develop between Alex and Marie, who admits she had hoped he’d be killed in the line of duty. They circle each other warily, perhaps too similar—too much like brother and sister—to become close.
Formally, Thieves is a New Wave thriller, revolving around the night that Ivan was killed, gradually revealing what happened and who was there. (In his notes to the film, Téchiné even invokes Faulkner, the American patron saint of fragmented French narrative.) The director is not very interested in crime drama, though, let alone action sequences. His speciality is psychological interiors, and he stages intellectual gags—as when Jimmy asks Marie to explain the philosophy of the only thing he cares about, money—with as much verve as shoot-outs.
Ultimately, the film belongs to Alex. It has his cool, calculating, distant spirit—which is, presumably, Téchiné’s spirit as well. Despite its icy thrills, in fact, Thieves is too tricky. The director lets his schema overwhelm the characters, crafting some stunning moments but undermining the cumulative impact. If Ma Saison Préférée and Wild Reeds showed Téchiné tentatively revealing his humanity, Thieves restores to power the director long known as a skilled but overdeliberate tactician.
Terry George actually did time in Northern Ireland’s most notorious prison (Maze to the English, Long Kesh to the Irish), yet his Some Mother’s Son is not so angry a film as In the Name of the Father, which he also co-wrote with Jim Sheridan. (Sheridan directed that one; George directed this one.) That’s because the center this time is the parent rather than the child: The film follows Kathleen Quigley (Helen Mirren) and Annie Higgins (Fionnula Flanagan) as their sons, Gerard (Aidan Gillen) and Frank (David O’Hara), starve themselves to seemingly inevitable death in the 1981 IRA hunger strike.
The strike really happened, of course, and Some Mother’s Son includes some historical characters, notably strike leader Bobby Sands (In the Name of the Father’s John Lynch), who was elected to Parliament as he wasted away. But the Quigleys and the Higginses are fictional, a reflection of some mother’s—every mother’s—dilemma during times of civil war. The opposition could hardly be more schematic: Kathleen is a pacifist, skeptical of the English but opposed to the IRA; Annie is a fierce IRA partisan, proud to have a political fugitive as a son. Mirren and Flanagan’s performances, however, give full human dimension to these archetypes.
Like Costa-Gavras’ Missing, another artful, sophisticated propaganda film, this is fundamentally the story of a moderate’s radicalization. Kathleen is proper, middle-class, and a teacher at a Catholic school, uninterested in changing the status quo. Unlike her son, she has sympathy for the British soldiers killed by the IRA; unlike Annie, with whom she gradually becomes friends, she has no objection to sitting under a portrait of the queen at a local pub. As she deals with the ruthless U.K. authorities, however, her old attitude begins to change. She, in microcosm, is how the Thatcher-era crackdown on the IRA failed.
Though focused on Kathleen and Annie, Some Mother’s Son is also a history lesson. The details of the IRA strike, during which the prisoners refused to wear uniforms and in turn were denied use of the toilets, are evoked pungently. (At one point the prisoners, outfitted only in blankets, hear Mass in the hall as their cells, caked with excrement, are disinfected.) The contrast between the callous, technocratic Brits and the prisoners—who come to look like early-Christian martyrs with their long hair, beards, sunken cheeks, and robelike blankets—is exceptionally vivid. It’s the contrast between zealous conviction and brutal pragmatism, and you can probably guess which is more charismatic on screen.
Yet the film doesn’t drive this contrast to the triumphant conclusion a Hollywood film could scarcely resist. The opposition between Irish and English is regularly undermined by simple events, as when some British soldiers rescue Kathleen and Annie when their car gets stuck in the sand, and the tale ultimately ends in compromise. A suitably mournful Gaelic tune is sung as a few deaths are averted, at least for a time. Some Mother’s Son may prove too political for the mainstream moviegoer and too nuanced for the ideological one. Yet this complexity is exactly the film’s strength: It shows how horrible things happen even when everyone involved knows how to avert them.
Throughout In Love and War, 26-year-old nurse Agnes von Kurowsky (Sandra Bullock) calls wounded 18-year-old ambulance driver Ernest Hemingway (Chris O’Donnell) “kid.” A more fitting nickname, however, would be “twerp.” It would suit director Richard Attenborough, too.
A loose account of Hemingway’s World War I romance (also fictionalized in the novelist’s own A Farewell to Arms), In Love and War will not separate the Hemingway cultists from his skeptics. Both should find this film bland, lifeless, and corny. When the boyish Ernie blithely bicycles to the front, singing “Over There,” and an orchestra obligingly picks up the tune, less sentimental viewers will hope that he’s about to receive something more serious than a flesh wound. Alas, he just gets shot in the leg, and after Aggie uses her medical knowledge (more advanced than that of the local doctor) to cure his gangrene, Ernie is soon up and about.
The kid then serves as the ward’s social director and voice of compassion, doing such gallant good deeds as writing phony letters to the parents of his maimed compatriots and allowing a dying man to win at poker. (Somehow that gesture seems inadequate.) Ernie budgets most of his time, however, to romancing Aggie. Indeed, he asks her to marry him as soon as he meets her, which suggests that Attenborough has paid less attention to All Quiet on the Western Front than to old Tracy/Hepburn flicks.
Ernie is supposed to be callow and Aggie is supposed to be sweet, portrayals worthy of O’Donnell and Bullock’s limited abilities. But the most penetrating character development is yet to come: Aggie agrees to marry Ernie, then calls it off. He, enraged, becomes the brooding, angry man he was to be for the rest of his life. That’s the shallow In Love and War in a nutshell: Hemingway—was a twerp, got jilted, became a prick.CP