The screenplay for the above film was co-written by Francois Truffaut who hoped to direct it as well, but died before he was able to do so, landing the script with the more pedestrian Claude Miller. One can see why it would have been a pet project for Truffaut since it is the distaff side of his famed "The 400 Blows" (1958). Instead of charting the history of a troubled and anti-social youth, the story here is of 16-year old Janine, brought winningly to life by 17-year old Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Set in the years shortly after the Second World War, Janine is a compulsive thief, cutting a lonely yet somehow sympathetic figure. Abandoned by her mother and unloved by the stern aunt with whom she lives, her only outlet is through the theft of articles that she hoards rather than desires and cash from the local church to fund her cinema obsession. Forced first from her school and then from her village, she lies to secure the position of maid in a grand house in a nearby town, escaping to the ready-made dreams of the local cinema on her days off. There she meets an older married man, Didier Bezace, 42 to her 16 and tries to entice him to deflower her. He is horrified at the suggestion that he should do this, so she quickly contrives to lose her virginity to a workman in the house and subsequently presents herself to Bezace as an experienced 'woman'. He no longer resists the temptation and a clandestine relationship ensues. Mind you, this is no 'Lolita' fantasy; she's far from a simpering innocent and knows exactly what she wants. In his favour he does his best to educate her in the ways of the world and enrols her in a secretarial course as a step up from domestic service. However she soon becomes enamoured of a young thief and casts her older lover adrift.
Her new paramour is played by Simon de la Brosse a charismatic 23-year old who committed suicide a few years later. He encourages her to steal from the household where she's been working (much to the dismay of her mistress who has tried her best to befriend the girl), and off the pair go on the run until their romantic idyll ends with a police raid. He escapes capture but she ends up in a drab borstal overseen by a pack of stern nuns, dreaming of escape and reuniting with her lover. When she and a new friend manage to break out, there is no welcome for her anywhere, but armed with the camera her friend has given her she hopes for an independent and crime-free future. We in turn wish her well despite any lingering doubts.
The film verges on the plodding, as scene follows scene in unearthing her sorry progression, but Gainsbourg holds one's attention and saves the film from drowning in its own misery. She's a fascinating actress. Here she is an odd-looking but not unattractive teenager. As she grew older her looks became progressively strange, but were tempered by her growing prowess as an actress. There is no law that says lead actresses have to be raving beauties. She made her feature debut as a 13-year old and the above movie was her seventh. She won a Cesar in 1986 as most promising newcomer and went on to win a best actress award in Cannes in 2009. She relishes challenging roles -- one has only to look at the parts she has taken for Lars von Trier --and she has remained an intriguing player throughout her long and successful career.