Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Jacques Doillon's The Little Gangster (1990) is showing August 7 – September 6, 2018 in the United States as part of the series After the New Wave.
He could have been a good kid. It's obvious from the way he flusters the first time he holds up a store with his father-in-law's gun. When the cashier tells him it's impossible to open the register without a sale, he frowns, grabs a bottle of shampoo from the rack, reaches into his pocket, pulls out some change, and tells her that she can take it out of the FR500 he originally demanded. It's obvious he never wanted to hurt anyone; his threats were meant more to steel himself than to actually terrify the cashier.
If only he wasn't poor. If only he didn't have an alcoholic, suicidal mother or an absent, violent father. If only he was smarter or more clever and the people around him listened to what he had to say or cared about what he had to think. Then maybe Marc (Gérald Thomassin) may never have been forced to resort to armed robbery to get the cash to travel to Montpellier to visit the sister he never knew he had until a chance phone call. But he isn't rich or loved or smart. He's just a lonely teenage delinquent in a baggy, ratty white polo and baggier, rattier blue jeans, an unwanted walking concavity of desperate emotional need.
It's this unspoken need that burns at the center of Jacques Doillon’s The Little Gangster, a naturalistic film that can perhaps best be described as a holistic crime drama, as it examines a single criminal act, its causes, and its repercussions with a steely, unbiased gaze. Immediately after robbing the store, Marc is picked up by Gérard (Richard Anconina), a well-intentioned cop ("un flic"). But determined to find his sister—perhaps the one person in the world, he silently reasons, who might truly love and understand him—he takes Gérard hostage with his stepfather’s gun and forces him to take him from his home in Sète to Montpellier and use his police connections to find her address. So begins Marc's strange odyssey through the sun-scorched south of France which will alternatively see him as a captor, a captive, a protagonist, and a bit player.
As with many of Doillon's films, The Little Gangster is propelled by a central performance by an untrained, untested performer, in this case Thomassin, a fifteen-year-old nobody the director found in a Paris housing project. You can feel Thomassin's nervousness in the early scenes, particularly in his first confrontation with his mother where he steps on one of her lines and almost flubs one or two of his own. But as the film continues both Doillon and Thomassin discover aching depths without which the film would have collapsed, mainly those found in brooding silence. Many of Thomassin's most powerful scenes see him sitting or thinking in silence—in his room, by a river, in a car—as the jazzy soundtrack straight from a ‘50s noir quivers in the background. It's as if he finds comfort in his own insignificance and unimportance, or is at the very least used to it.
This resignation reaches its apex during the film's second act where Marc largely disappears from his own narrative after he locates his sister Nathalie (Clotilde Courau). Touched by Marc's journey, Nathalie demands Gérard take the both of them back to the Sète, grabbing his police gun and making him a hostage twice over. Alternating between bouts of calmness and crazed hysteria (Courau’s performance justifiably won the European Film Award for Best Actress), she spends the return trip trying to convince Gérard to either let him go or lie about the robbery and Marc's taking him hostage at gunpoint so that he can receive a weaker sentence. She and Gérard dominate this middle section, but notice how Marc always seems to be in the periphery of shots, a hazy blur in the background or a white dot on the edge of the frame. His sidelining isn’t shoddy screenwriting, it's a deliberate creative choice that makes Marc's insignificance all the more palpable and painful.
Eventually Marc, Nathalie, and Gérald return to the Sète. Marc has a friend change his name on his passport so it matches his biological father’s and tries to go back to school after several weeks of truancy, demanding his teachers and classmates call him by his new name. But he’s quickly sent to the office of the principal, who tries to have him arrested for his truancy. Much like his noir anti-hero forebears, Marc’s story ends with the realization that he’s trapped himself into a corner he can’t escape, a corner he built out of impulsive, irrational behavior borne from the need to quiet his own loneliness. He’ll have to face the music. But unlike so many of those tragic characters, there might be a light at the end of that tunnel: a sister who loves him. If there’s any comfort to be found in The Little Gangster, it’s that Marc’s story is still only just beginning.