Last night a teenager killed himself below my bedroom window. I heard it happen: first a crescendo of police sirens coming up the avenue at two in the morning, then a crash. The car was a big new Range Rover, which the kid had thought he could swerve at high speed into a side street–just like in the movies. At 9 today, the remains of his evasive maneuver were still spread over the sidewalk. A neighbor told me he died bare to the waist.
Walk around the streets of any big city and you, too, will see young people careen toward fatality, or damn close enough. Those out-of-control journeys have now become the special subject of filmmaker Erick Zonca. His first feature, The Dreamlife of Angels, won extraordinary praise (in these pages, as elsewhere) for charting the intersecting paths of two young women in the north of France: members of the working class who don’t work much, and who form an intense friendship till temperament pulls them apart.
Now two shorter films by Zonca are showing up on screens in the United States. (In New York, they’re at Film Forum through March 14.) Alone, a half-hour piece, was made just before The Dreamlife of Angels. The hourlong The Little Thief was made just after. Spare, direct and unsentimental, yet crafted with a moviemaker’s touch, they give us two more portraits of impecunious young people on their way toward catastrophe.
Alone and The Little Thief turn out to be a matched set: the first focusing on a girl who loses her job and her housing within the opening scene, the second on a boy who does the same. Both characters have leather jackets and bad attitudes; both fall in with companions of the same sex, who for a while seem instructive; both get in trouble with the law. That said, Alone is a more anecdotal piece, which sucks down its protagonist as efficiently as a fast-running drain. The Little Thief finds more time to invent circumstances and observe the surroundings, so that its protagonist has a measure of the free will that’s used and abused in The Dreamlife of Angels.
Set in Paris, Alone begins in the middle of traffic, through which Amélie (Florence Loiret) darts on her way toward work. She’s a waitress, though not for long. Fired for chronic tardiness and a manner that upsets the patrons’ digestion, she returns to her apartment to find that an African family has just moved in. What few belongings she has, the landlord will keep till she pays her back rent. “I’ll go on TV and denounce you!” she screams–which is as good a plan as she makes for the rest of the movie.
Thin, fine-featured and haggard, with eyes that burn beneath her dark, blunt-cut hair, Amélie retires to a doorway in which to smoke and brood. It’s while she’s slumped there, knees to chin, that Zonca introduces one of the two key objects in the film: A gun literally drops into her possession. She tucks it into her bag with the film’s other key object: 500 francs in severance pay, which she was given in the opening scene. We now know exactly how much money Amélie has to her name and exactly how long it will last. (She’s checked into a dump that costs 100 francs a night.) The only questions remaining are when she’ll pull the gun, and how.
Being a realist, more or less, Zonca knows it’s not that easy to use a gun–especially not for a young woman who has never before been on the street. While on her downward path, which takes her through a day job at an open-air market to a night in a homeless shelter and at last to a point of crisis in an immigrant neighborhood on the outskirts of town, Amélie does everything she can think of with the gun. She tries flaunting it, selling it, dumping it. Begging is easier, almost. She’s taught how by a young woman of similar size and coloring (Veronique Octon), who might be a foreshadowing of Amélie in a few months’ time. But it seems the future won’t take exactly that form. When Amélie at last tries to beg, she has to force her arm into place, clutching her left hand against the right arm’s crook. It’s a pose you’d assume while waiting for a tourniquet.