'A Clever Crook' ('Un beau voyou'): Film Review

A clever French crime caper.

Charles Berling and Swann Arlaud star in cameraman-turned-director Lucas Bernard’s debut feature about a small-time criminal and his art-obsessed pursuer.

In the enjoyably old-school caper flick A Clever Crook (Un beau voyou), a retiring detective and crafty burglar play cat and mouse through the streets, inside the apartments and across the rooftops of Paris. Though it hardly breaks new ground, this cunning debut from writer-director Lucas Bernard is a pleasant throwback to the whodunits of the 1960s and '70s, as well as a very Gallic homage to the art of the steal.

Charles Berling (Ridicule, L’Ennui) plays Commissaire Beffrois, an affable, extremely laid-back cop who prances around town in Hawaiian shirts and approaches his métier with the distanced curiosity of a sociology professor. At the close of his long career, Beffrois has one last case to solve: a string of stolen paintings whose only connection seems to be the fact that they’re worth far less than your typical heisted masterpiece.

While paying a visit to a loony old art restorer (the hilarious Jean-Quentin Chatelain) and his vivacious daughter, Justine (Jennifer Decker), Beffrois haphazardly crosses paths with the latter’s current boyfriend, Bertrand (Swann Arlaud), who turns out to be the culprit. But it will take most of the movie for the sly detective to figure that out, tracking the mysterious thief with his strong sense of intuition and keen appreciation for abstract painting, which was bestowed upon him by his recently deceased wife.

Bernard, who previously worked as a camera operator and DP, tosses in several twists — including a memorable one at the end of the last act — as Beffrois stays on Bertrand’s trail, with the latter always a step ahead of his pursuer. The young, lanky thief looks more like a painter, or a suicidal 19th century poet, than a common criminal. (How many criminals read Roberto Bolano's 2666 on the metro?) Yet as much as Bertrand tries not to give his game away he’s actually a hidden ball of nerves, lying and stealing to constantly cover up his tracks. Beffrois, meanwhile, is both nonchalant and completely obsessed with a case that isn’t worth all that much to the higher-ups in his department, although for his own ego and intellect he's dead set on solving it.

Part Agatha Christie and part Blake Edwards, with a dash of Columbo thrown in, A Clever Crook is less about the crime than it is about two rather lonely Parisians getting to know each other on opposite sides of the law. It’s the kind of movie where the pleasure is much more about the pursuit than the spoils, which may make it too casual for film noir fans but just the right thing for Francophiles and older audiences looking for a little bit of intrigue.

Performances are especially strong, with the veteran Berling, the up-and-coming Arlaud (Bloody Milk, A Woman’s Life) and the excellent newcomer Decker adding much charisma to the proceedings. The photography feels a tad flat, especially in the interior scenes, while the film makes excellent use of its various locations — particularly during a lengthy rooftop chase where any sense of danger is belied by all the stunning vistas of Paris at night.

Production companies: Les Grandes Espaces, France 3 Cinema
Cast: Charles Berling, Swann Arlaud, Jennifer Decker, Jean-Quentin Chatelain, Erick Deshors
Director-screenwriter: Lucas Bernard
Producer: Florian Mole
Director of photography: Alexandre Leglise
Production designer: Anne-Charlotte Vimont
Editor: Valentin Durning
Composer: Christophe Danvin
Casting director: Tatiana Vialle
Sales: Pyramide

In French
104 minutes