The Good Thief, Neil Jordan’s remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (1955), doesn’t quite freedom-fry the Gallic classic, but it’s less an homage than a mill-run colonial takeover. The first to retool Melville—with the exception, in spirit only, of Quentin Tarantino—Jordan proves predictably unreliable, oblivious to the difference between iconhood and cliché, holding no great faith in his audience’s left lobes. The vicissitudes of Jordan’s CV have ranged from the trenchant sublimity of The End of the Affair and The Butcher Boy to vacant horrors like High Spirits and We’re No Angels. Here, he treads heavily on what was once a matter of effortless, indigenous style.
American neo-noir, as it has been labeled and extolled, may have begun with Polanski’s Chinatown, but lately it could be better defined as noir revisionism—making noir’s proletariat nihilism safe and snarky for mass consumption and maximal profit. Melville devised bone-chilly requiems for criminal outcast-ness that explored the emotional costs of post-Bogartian cool (among other broody things), but all Jordan sees is the cool. Glossy, glib, and fussily clotted with neon, saxophones, and backlit cigarette smoke, his movie winnows the original’s existentialist fable into a busy caper thriller, copping plot devices from Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 and even straining to Wong Kar-wai its camera’s way around the fleshpots of Nice. It’s all pizzazz, and the pizzazz is all borrowed.
Bob the Gambler is now a droopy, shambling American expat (Nick Nolte), notorious as a heist engineer but presently nursing a disastrous career as a cardman and a junkie. Resting squarely on Nolte’s self-abused shoulders, The Good Thief makes a good case for him having finally transformed into an unprecedented movie creature—not a leading man or a character actor, but a growling, attitudinizing monster whose alligatored visage can only articulate emotion by alarmingly intense muscular dead-lifting. Talk about poker faces; often, Nolte seems lucky to get words out. Thanks to Bob’s affection for a willowy Slavic hooker (Nutsa Kukhianidze, coming across like a Russo-teen Helen Hunt) and a newly hatched plan to steal a Monte Carlo casino’s collection of paintings, Nolte’s hero arcs from dissolute has-been to motivated rescuer, affectionately sparring with a suspicious detective (Tchéky Karyo) and reviving his motley gang of co-conspirators for One Last Job. The star, meanwhile, grumbles and bulldozes his way through the movie in sore need of a vitamin shot and an alert study of the Melville oeuvre, where no one says exactly what they mean.
Jordan gets some bounce from his international cast (particularly Saïd Taghmaoui as Bob’s Algerian sidekick and director Emir Kusturica as an unshaven techie), and the gambling melodramatics—particularly once Bob embarks on his superhuman winning streak—are congenitally tense. But, irritatingly, The Good Thief winds up exactly where Melville would never have gone—on the sunny side of the street. Dorer la pilule, indeed.
Another French legend recycling, Josée Dayan’s Cet Amour Là rhapsodizes the strange, embattled host-parasite love affair between aging literary lioness Marguerite Duras and Yann Andréa, a twentysomething arch-fan who became her lover and aide for the woman’s last 16 years. Dayan’s film is a bizarrely attenuated experience, neglecting dramatic substance and context (we never learn anything of Duras’s books as they’re written—we hear more about the process of retyping—and virtually no mention is made of her films) in favor of swooning hagiography. (Neither is any effort made to make their relationship seem longer than a few months.) As personified, inevitably, by Jeanne Moreau (the two women matured side by side in the French New Wave, and Moreau has already embodied Durasian alter egos in five films), Duras is a crazy, curmudgeonly wino, given to burbling the sort of declarative nonsense about the dead body of love and the agony of art that has long given French movies a bad name in Duluth. As the placid and dopey Andréa, from whose memoir the film is derived, Aymeric Demarigny is a handsome anodyne, gazing upon Moreau’s autumnal despair with the stare of a dead spaniel.
But Moreau herself remains redoubtable—still possessed, at a supremely fleshy 75, of a camera rapport seductive enough to make you wonder why Dayan chicken-shitted-ly elided the relationship’s sexual consummation. (The film drearily cuts to a sunset instead.) Moreau provides Duras with truckloads of warmth and common sense that aren’t in the screenplay, and watching her gamely field this dialogue is observing grace under idiotic pressure. (Is it too much to croon over the unsung effulgence of Moreau’s hair, as always unforgettably framing her petulant frown and defenseless eyes?) Cet Amour Là may worship heedlessly at Duras’s memory, but it’s a testament to Moreau alone.
Genuflecting toward another time-worn legend, the doc Fellini: I’m a Born Liar features the beloved ringmaster’s last interviews, in which he sometimes cheerfully, sometimes mordantly, kisses his own ass and maintains into perpetuity that his “fantasies” were the stuff of pure genius. How enlightening you find Damian Pettigrew’s obsessive film depends on whether you’re as adoring of Fellini as he was of himself; for the devoted, it’s a gold mine, revisiting famous locations from the maestro’s films and life, and including uproarious interviews with Terence Stamp and Donald Sutherland about their scalding experiences working for cinema’s most self-involved puppetmaster. (You also see, in behind-the-scenes footage, actors actually counting instead of reciting dialogue; few major filmmakers cared less about sonic fidelity, and the creepy disconnect that resulted from Fellini’s routine dubbing atrocities may have been part of their fascination to 1960s audiences.) In choosing his gorgeous film clips, Pettigrew tellingly eschews the prototypically grotesque Fellini image—in any case, this may be the best way to see many Fellini films, one disembodied minute at a time.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 1, 2003