Oh Dad, Poor Dad

Surrogate fathers in The Good Thief and The Son

In Neil Jordan's new movie, The Good Thief, Nick Nolte plays Bob Montagnet, an American-expatriate gambler down on his luck in the seedy underworld of the French Riviera. Bob measures his days in heroin hits, his face a blurry mask under a bad dye job, his eyes two defeated slits. For a while, Nolte seems to be playing Nolte, or at least the crumpled, unmoored, unmanned Nolte he has been perfecting in front of us for years, from Karel Reisz's Who'll Stop the Rain? through Alan Rudolph's Afterglow to Paul Schrader's Affliction. Then, deliciously, Jordan pulls the rug out. Into Bob's life steps Anne (played by the Georgian actress Nutsa Kukhianidze), a young Eastern European immigrant on the verge of being sold into drugs and prostitution.

Slender and slim-hipped, with her unfashionably short pageboy and a lazily sexy voice just this side of nasal, Kukhianidze is as enchanting a find as the sultry Kathy Tyson was in Jordan's Mona Lisa. Her Anne already sports a black eye and a what-the-hell readiness to tag along with any man who offers her material support. The moment she lays eyes on Bob, you can see her sizing him up for father, lover, protector—very likely all three—and she offers herself to him on the spot. He gives her a bed but refuses to sleep with her, for she has awakened the reluctant knight in him, as well as the dormant professional crook. When Bob receives a tip-off that huge amounts of available cash will be stored in the vault of a Monte Carlo casino the night before the Grand Prix, he handcuffs himself to his bed, detoxes in a matter of days and—under the watchful but sympathetic eye of Roger (Tchéky Karyo), the cop who has put him away six times and still wants to save his soul—sets about pulling together a team of pros for a cheeky heist. Bob is an art lover whose hero is Picasso ("The cat stole from everybody"), and when he hears that the casino is hung with copies of paintings whose originals lie in the vault, he's doubly hooked.

The Good Thief is a remake, loving and faithful to the spirit if not the letter of Jean-Pierre Melville's 1955 film noir classic Bob le Flambeur, which was restored in exquisite black and white by Rialto Pictures and rereleased in 2001. Melville, widely considered the founder of the French New Wave, was a rotund, balding Jewish egghead who yearned to be an American gangster. Bob le Flambeur was originally conceived as a drama, but once Melville had seen John Huston's 1950 The Asphalt Jungle, he felt unable to top Huston's masterpiece and recast Bob as a caper, underpinned by the wistful subtext of honor—and betrayal—among thieves that informed every film he made. (Small wonder that Quentin Tarantino, asked by our sister paper, the LA Weekly, in 1993 to list his five favorite movies of all time, rated Melville's Le Doulos among them.)

Shot on location and using natural light, the thinly plotted Bob le Flambeuris an homage not just to the tawdry charms of Montmartre but to the classic American movies of the 1930s and '40s, with their sad-faced, chain-smoking gangsters in trench coats. (Its star was the world-weary Roger Duchesne, who reputedly had ties to the French mob.) The Good Thief doffs its cap in return, both to European moviemaking and to the radically changed milieu of the Continent. Bob's team—among them his impulsive North African junior partner Paulo (Saïd Taghmaoui), the strobe-lit electric-guitar-playing techno wizard Vlad (Serbian director Emir Kusturica), and an enigmatic pair of identical twins (played by the Polish brothers, Mark and Michael)—forms a seamy microcosm of the cosmopolitan New Europe.

Like Melville, though, Jordan overlays the realist grit of the city with a swooning romanticism. With its rhythmic freeze-frames and pulsing score, The Good Thiefhas the restless motion one associates with cinematographer Chris Menges (The Mission, Michael Collins) and the casual joyousness of a work made out of sheer movie love. Everything is beautiful, from the pathological vermilions and blues of Nice's underworld to the winking lights of Monte Carlo, where the inky purple-black of night fades to the brilliant blue of a sunlit day, recalling the fairy-tale atmospherics of Jordan's lovely 1991 movie, The Miracle. Indeed, The Good Thief is a fairy tale, not just in the plotted fun of the heist and counterheist or in the clever twist thrown in at the end, but also in the grandiloquent myth, so passionately espoused by Melville, of the crook as a man of honor and elegance. By the end of the movie, distracted by a night at the roulette wheel with his young siren, Bob has become the good thief in more ways than one, a well-dressed high roller who, instead of bedding a woman, places his hand in the small of her back and takes her shopping; a man who will never betray or tolerate betrayal; a man who, having been lost, is returned to himself through a woman's love and the exercise of his calling. This is bunk, but it is gloriously beguiling bunk, the kind that will never go away because it speaks to so many American desires—the desire to get rich at a stroke, to defang the criminal and remake him as a hero who can't harm us, to believe that it is luck and style, not the daily grind, that will bring us success and happiness. Isn't it romantic?

* * *

Among the shrinking tribe of filmmakers who still make movies about working people, there is a marked tendency to define their subjects only by the problems that are thought to afflict that class—poverty, gangs, violence, drugs, booze. However well-meaning, this is a form of condescension, one that the Belgian writer/directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes have largely avoided by honoring their characters with inner lives. The brothers' muse is Olivier Gourmet, an owlish, impassive actor who starred in La Promesse and Rosetta and who last year won Best Actor at Cannes for his performance in the Dardennes brothers' remarkable new film, The Son (Le Fils), the story of a Herculean emotional struggle undertaken in near total silence.

Gourmet—an astonishingly physical actor—plays Olivier, a carpentry instructor who works at a vocational-training center for boys. He's a man of few words, and these are almost all concrete and functional, related to the work activity that we sense may be all he has left in life. We meet him as he prowls around, restless and agitated, spying on a new arrival at the center, a pinched, expressionless lad of 16 named Francis (Morgan Marinne), who in turn becomes obsessed with his instructor. Though at first it seems the boy might be a son long-ago abandoned by Olivier, when the older man's ex-wife, Magali (Isabella Soupart), shows up to let him know she's pregnant and about to marry the father ("I want to start something new," she says), we later learn that Francis, who has just been released from juvenile hall, is the killer of their only son. On hearing Olivier has chosen to take a particular interest in the boy, Magali is horrified.

The Son makes no attempt to entertain us. Much of this extraordinarily tactful movie, like Rosetta, is shot in close-up, focusing on the back of Olivier's neck, as if inviting us to see the world as he does or to enter his head and try to understand the emotions of a man who doesn't understand them himself. Olivier and the boy circle each other, draw together, move apart. One waits for closure, and instead, there is the slowly unfolding revelation of a man torn between rage at the loss of his son and the unspoken desire, welling up like a long-suppressed groan, to become a father again.

The Good Thief was written and directed by Neil Jordan (based on the movie Bob le Flambeur by Jean-Pierre Melville); produced by Stephen Woolley, John Wells and Seaton Mclean; and stars Nick Nolte, Nutsa Kukhianidze and Tchéky Karyo. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana; The Son was written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes; produced by the Dardenneses and Denis Freyd; and stars Olivier Gourmet, Morgan Marinne and Isabella Soupart. Now playing at Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hills.

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