Le Petit Voleur, or How long is a feature film?

How long is a feature film? Eighty, ninety minutes? Two hours? Two hours ten? Seven and a half? (You know who you are, Bela Tarr.)

All of the above. I don’t mind. A film should be as long as it needs to be, and no shorter. Yes, you heard me, no shorter. More films have been ruined by the knife, cutting to contract, than have benefited, I have no doubt.

How short can a film be before it stops being a ‘feature’? Multiplexes will expect a minimum of eighty minutes, I suspect; while film festival regulations provide a simple rule: a feature film must be over one hour in length. That’s a nice round figure, and fair enough when you consider film festivals deal primarily with low-budget, independent productions which, let’s face it, sometimes have to go ‘with what they’ve got.’ But how many films of sixty-odd minutes have you seen? Not many, I imagine. Kaurismaki has given us a couple, ‘The Match Factory Girl’ and ‘Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana,’ and they’re both full value, though I wonder if he set out to make them that length or if they just end up that way.

Clocking in at 63 minutes, Erick Zonca’s ‘Le Petit Voleur‘ (1998) must be the shortest feature I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t mess around. It is an object lesson in not messing around.

Consider the opening sequence: in an empty bar, a young guy finishes a solitary beer, he turns up to work at a bakery, he’s obviously been AWOL because there’s a new kid working there and the boss fires him without ceremony, he loses the room that came with the job too; cut to a bar, where the guy tells a girlfriend he’s through with ‘work’, from now on he’ll be the one “screwing others,” she’s not too impressed, but she offers him somewhere to stay – she trusts him; they fuck; he steals her wages; and then, here’s the big one, we cut to a bunch of scumbags chafing on about other people’s wealth and we find our guy among them, listening; then they’re away ripping off some rich person’s villa.

We don’t know how our guy fell in with these scroats; we don’t know how he got there, or whether it’s the same city – it may not be, in fact. No exposition is slipped into the dialogue like a valium. We don’t need it. Our guy’s signed up for a life of petty crime and he’s at the bottom of the pecking order. We get that. And that’s all we need to get.

The betrayal of the girl’s trust is important here. By taking her wages, he commits to a course of action, he crosses a threshold. He pitches himself into a world of machismo, of crime, violence, envy, and greed. That is where we find him in the next scene. No messing about.

If ever there was a subject which suited such brutally compressed exposition … I wanted to get out of that world. I didn’t like it there. Mercifully, Zonca and his co-writer, Virginie Wagon, deliver us in little more than an hour.

A film as short as it needed to be.


Erick Zonca’s ‘Le Petit Voleur‘: “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Le Petit Voleur is not available to rent or purchase on DVD, outside of France, as far as I know.


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