Most American movie critics have it hardwired into their circuitry to get excited about the work of foreign filmmakers. The truth is, though, that over the last decade, few such directors have emerged of genuinely timeless vision and power. I would count perhaps two: Denmark’s Lars von Trier, whose 1996 masterpiece, ”Breaking the Waves,” used digital rawness to express the thirst for revelation in a secular age; and France’s Erick Zonca, whose 1999 art-house breakthrough, ”The Dream Life of Angels,” a kind of Gallic ”Single White Female,” was a fiercely disquieting study in the pathology of friendship.
Zonca’s new film, The Little Thief, is only 65 minutes long (it’s being paired with ”Alone,” an earlier short work of his), yet I think it’s an even more gripping achievement than ”The Dream Life of Angels.” Zonca has mastered a style of lyrical immediacy – a poetic realism in which events appear random and spontaneous yet charged with fate.
The title delinquent, Esse (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who looks like an even more fragile version of James Dean, quits his deadening job as a baker’s assistant and falls in with a cocky young clan of boxers and hooligans. They’re like a family to him, and Zonca stages Esse’s initiation into crime – breaking and entering, collecting payoffs from a pimp – so that we experience the most petty transgression as an edgy adventure that can instantly turn horrific.
In his passive, Boy Scout-sociopath way, Esse feeds on the camaraderie, yet he invests his new identity with an unspoken romance that’s destined to blow up in his face. ”The Little Thief” builds to a series of violent moral shocks as Esse, along with the audience, is jolted out of his wolf-pack reverie. The movie, at all times, stares at him with cleansing compassion. In just one hour, Zonca does more than create a character – he shows you a life.