We gave it a B+
It’s postwar France and the liberated French are turning their thoughts from war to romantic cinema and the capricious world of high fashion. In the midst of it all is 16-year-old Janine Castang, who likes to steal: cigarettes, lingerie, furs. She even attempts to five-finger the church collection plate, which gets her ousted from her tiny village and sets her moving on a difficult path to adulthood.
The troubled Janine is the creation of French filmmaker François Truffaut. She was invented as a companion to 13-year-old Antoine Doinel, the main character of his acclaimed first feature, The 400 Blows. But she was cut from that film with Truffaut’s promise to himself to base a future movie on the character. Truffaut died before he was able to commit his The Little Thief to film, but he did complete a 30-page story from which director Claude Miller — a Truffaut collaborator for many years — brought Janine’s tale to the screen last year.
The result is both insightful and sincere. Like The 400 Blows, The Little Thief focuses on the pain of being a lonely, misunderstood adolescent. Also like The 400 Blows, the movie’s spark comes from a remarkable performance in the central role. With her lanky body, unkempt hair, and soulful brown eyes, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Janine is forever sorrowful. Even when she smiles, a thin veil of sadness remains on her face as proof of her unquenchable need.
As directed by Miller the movie is never oversentimental — Janine’s delinquency has a grim side — but it is sometimes sluggish. Too much time is spent on Janine’s early escapades, causing the ending (involving her last rebellious larceny) to seem rushed and oversimplified. And, though the movie’s intimate scale works well on the small screen, the video’s subtitles are small and often difficult to read. But regardless of its few flaws, it’s nice that Janine’s story has at last found its place in the world. Truffaut would be pleased.