Vjeran Tomic: The Spider-Man of Paris 2023 Movie Review
The film opens with two, maybe three minutes of title cards and teasers that made me think I accidentally fired up the trailer instead of the film itself – but no, that’s just Roberts laying out his method and establishing Tomic as a man of singular talents. “My nickname is Spider-Man,” he says. “I’m one of the biggest burglars in Paris.” Others call him “elusive” and “a legend” who “had balls.” “The biggest art heist in French history,” the screen reads. “Told by the real thief… with the real detectives… with dramatic reconstruction.” Five masterpieces were stolen in what was to be, in Tomic’s own words, his last job. (See what I mean about the trailer thing?)
Soon enough, the doc settles down and sets the hook as Tomic sits center-frame and talks about how his “receiver” – a person who purchases stolen goods from thieves for distribution – gave him a list of paintings to “acquire,” for the tidy price of €50 each. We meet some Parisian cops and art exhibitors, and get a brief tour of MoMA Paris, which, Tomic figured out, had weak window frames and a broken alarm system.
And now, we finally get linear: 1968. Tomic tells his story: He was born in France to a mother too sick to care for him and an abusive father. He spent part of his childhood with an aunt and uncle in Bosnia. He started stealing at age eight, which led to a teenage life defined by serial delinquency. He went into the military, where he learned to climb – and learned he was damn great at it. He left the service and, motivated by money, began targeting rich people to burglarize. He’d scale 10 or even 15 stories, break into apartments and sneak through as people slept, stealing their jewelry and cash. We see go-pro helmet-cam footage recreating his climbs, tightroping on railings dozens of feet above the ground, jumping from balconies to roof peaks to ledges.
We meet some of the people Tomic victimized, who talk about how home invasions, even if they aren’t physically destructive, are psychologically painful violations of their sense of security. Tomic justifies his actions with a blanket statement about rich people and their lack of appreciation for their abundance: “I know they’re devious, depraved and dishonest,” he says. But people stopped keeping valuables and cash in their homes, prompting Tomic’s burgeoning appreciation for paintings. Like a true-blue Frenchman, he really liked the impressionists. He once got busted lifting three Renoirs, and was sent to prison; he’ll later reveal that he’d spent 18 years of his life incarcerated, before the MoMA heist. That’s why he wanted it to be his last job. He wanted to take the money, buy a boat and sail the world. So he spent many days casing the museum, studying building security, acquiring tools and painstakingly removing screws from a window in the dead of night. And then one night he jimmied the window. Removed the glass. Cut a chain lock. And walked right in.
After a briefly herky-jerky start (note: the trend where documentaries open with a quasi-teaser-trailer is annoying and unnecessary), The Spider-Man of Paris is a smartly crafted thriller in documentary form. Roberts layers Tomic’s narration over slickly directed reenactments that build and heighten tension. The director emphasizes the painstaking minutiae of the burglar’s actions and details suspenseful moments in his escape, his attempts to get paid for job – his receiver only ever gave him €40,000 – and the police investigation that followed. Detectives began with almost nothing, and happened to be surveilling Tomic not for the MoMA job, but because he was an unapologetic repeat offender. Investigators followed him at night and tapped his phones as he blew through his money and considered, but never followed through with more burglaries.
As we sit enraptured by the drama, Roberts weaves in a profile of Tomic, who reveals himself to be a loner who, in one of the film’s most fascinating passages, reveals he’d take homeless people out to fancy dinners because he didn’t have friends or family and didn’t trust anyone. Roberts tracks down an unhoused gent named Guillaume who describes Tomic as a loner who pushes people away due to his abrasive mannerisms; Guillaume even claims Tomic told him about the art theft, because Tomic likely needed to unburden himself and had no one else to talk to. (In an amusing aside, detectives share how they thought one phone number Tomic frequently called was his receiver, only to find out it was Guillaume. “He eats out of garbage cans” sighs a cop known only as Bruno, who wears a mask on camera due to his frequent undercover work.)
Although Tomic’s narration is the cornerstone of the film, Roberts doesn’t wholly rely on him to flesh out the story. He thoroughly and diligently interviews key characters, and somehow, refreshingly, avoids the journalists and lawyers who populate every other documentary. (He even tracks down one of Tomic’s heavily moneyed marks, whose commentary only solidifies the thief’s broad assertions about arrogant rich people.) Tomic’s exposition is so matter-of-fact, it’s hard to tell if he’s an egomaniac or a bullshit artist, but even the cops uphold the assumption that he has “a certain nobility” to him that renders him a decent man beneath his brazen deeds. What a tantalizing mystery this Spider-Man is, and what a fascinating film Roberts has made about him.