THE LITTLE THIEF (Claude Miller, 1988)

Janine Castang, who is sixteen in 1950 in La petite voleuse, began as Antoine Doinel’s companion in crime and flight from juvenile delinquent confinement, but François Truffaut, feeling he had enough on his hands with Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Antoine, decided to drop her character from his monumental The 400 Blows (1959). Truffaut would come back to Janine; there would be time. Too little time, it turned out. Upon his sad and jolting death at age 52 in 1984, Truffaut left behind a sketchy script that he and Claude de Givray had devised with Janine at its center; expanded upon by a host of writers, produced by Claude Berri and directed by Claude Miller, Truffaut’s longtime assistant director, it became, among other things, more or less an hommage to Truffaut and to his first feature-length film. (Janine also runs to and down the seashore—but, unlike Antoine, she runs right into the sea for a swim; whereas Antoine steals a typewriter, Janine steals a camera; we see Janine cry, like Antoine, only once.) The French critics named the result the year’s best film.
     We see glints of Antoine Doinel in both Janine and Raoul, the buddy Janine most loves, and whom she sees at the last, or regretfully imagines she sees, in a Pathé newsreel, as a soldier on his way to Indochina. Indeed, Pathé inserts largely dispense the irony of French “progress” as stasis, its postwar addiction to war as a means of evading the Second World War and grappling with France’s recently checkered moral history. These black-and-white interruptions of the color film are neat and brutal—and a haunting stylistic evocation of Truffaut.
     Janine’s personal history is heart-wrecking—all the more so for its matter-of-fact disclosure. Abandoned, first, by her father and then by her mother, Janine has been living on a small dairy farm with an uncle and an aunt, the latter of whom is hateful. For Janine, sex provides parental warmth in an impoverished life—a tortuous existence; she doesn’t need to have sex with Raoul, in her screwy psychology, because she genuinely loves him for himself. She does her best to navigate a cold, indifferent world that is populated by vicious nuns, a schoolteacher to match, and other sundry authorities; she does not steal, as some insensitive reviewers suggest, because she is bored. She perpetually needs to feel that she owns something in order to feel she is something. (I wonder whether Janine-bashers extend their antipathy to Antoine Doinel—or is it a gender-thing, that their hearts are shut only to girls who steal.)
     For me, Miller’s film is an okay piece of work with a powerful finish and two fine performances: Charlotte Gainsbourg as Janine; whoever it is that plays the choirmaster, Janine’s timid, fastidious married lover. (Janine must bed with someone else first because the choirmaster finds distasteful the thought of having sex with a virgin!) It is the latter gentleman who introduces Janine to books. (In effect, he wants her to be Antoine Doinel.) But it’s a camera that in the end points Janine in the direction of her future, for she has images and images to catch before she sleeps.

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