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Alone / The Little Thief

     Why don't Americans go to European films any more? A theory thrown about (by The New Yorker's David Denby, for one) is that we used to attend these films because of the sexy stories and unrobed babes, but now the almost-X stuff can be found abundantly in our own movies. Why venture into subtitled territory?

     There's teensy truth to this vantage. Yet most often, today's American film narratives and European ones don't overlap in the slightest; in no way are they duplicate aesthetic experiences.

     "Serious" Hollywood movies (and the bulk of American indies) tend to be character-driven, with speeches, psychologizing, and overdetermined backstory. The shooting style is as simple as TV, and the audience sits back and enjoys. "Serious" European art movies are subtext-driven: minimalist, about what's not said, with emphasis on the formal side of storytelling. The audience is required to be an activist participant, figuring things out from subtle visual clues, and swimming about in a world of moral ambiguity. A mood of pessimism and limited possibilities prevails (class is a definite factor), versus the "Go for it!" optimism of American cinema.

    As for sex: the soft-focus, screwing-is-beautiful tone of "adult" American movies (especially when movie stars are involved) is replaced by raw, blunt, not-always-pretty, carnality. Sex as it actually is.

     Alone (1997) and The Little Thief (1999), two short films by France's Erich (Dreamlife of Angels) Zonka, are paradigmatically European arthouse works. Forget revelatory flashbacks, or epiphanic oratory. We know nothing, and are offered nothing, about the two marginal, low-of-money protagonists - Alone's young woman, The Little Thief's young man - except the tiny actions that we observe unfolding on screen. They each have a brief conversation with someone of the opposite sex, than a quick cut to a bed. One couple copulates on screen, the other has finished. Both protagonists are shown being fired from jobs - waitressing, working in a bakery - and they both make impulsive decisions which lead them to venture into petty crime. We don't know in either case if their firing is fair or unjust, as the information simply isn't offered to us.

     And Zonka makes no judgment on their criminal lives.

     We aren't guided if we should root for these principal characters, and we aren't offered explanatory speeches to prove whether they are "good" or "bad." Still, we keep watching addictively because of Zoncka's expert filmmaking, and because we are made privy to curious, subterranean worlds.

     Alone is certainly the lesser film, an apprentice piece with too many histrionic, shouted scenes, as the ex-waitress, Amelie (Florence Loiret), sinks low, loses her rented room, has her pocketbook stolen, becomes a panhandler, threatens a taxi driver with a gun. This 30-minute work is most interesting for its section when Amelie hangs out with a foul-mouthed, shopping-bag, post-adolescent (Veronique Octon). Here's a rough draft of the female friendship at the center of Dreamlife of Angels, Zonka's international breakthrough.

     The Little Thief, Zoncka's latest, swings to life when the protagonist, "S" (Nicolas Duvauchelle), becomes embroiled with a pack of lowlife thieves in Marseilles. Here's the obverse of classic American gangster films, in which Jimmy Cagney or Edward G, Robinson rose quickly through the mob. The "rise" of "S" means he gets to pimp for a gaggle of prostitutes, then become the personal driver for the gang's meanest member, who viciously sodomizes him. Though he barely speaks in most of the scenes, "S" becomes almost "Americanized": he gains our sympathy, we wish for him a feel-good ending.

(August, 2000)


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