Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959) July 7, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Alliance Française, European Films.
Written and directed by Robert Bresson
Cast: Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, Jean Pelegri
“The film is not a thriller,” a note at the beginning of Pickpocket tells. “Using image and sound, the filmmaker strives to express the nightmare of a young man whose weaknesses lead him to commit acts of theft for which nothing destined him.” The filmmaker is Robert Bresson and the young man is Michel, both of whom have experienced life in prison, Bresson for 18 months at a German camp and Michel by the end of the movie. The dynamics between the two—the creator and the creation—speaks volumes about the perfectionist nature of Bresson and his style that is anything but ostentatious. His approach defines a kind of severity that is easier explained than done: the economy of shots, the carefully-timed fadeouts, and the voiceover that provides a sturdier description of the characters than the short dialogues themselves. Like a professional butcher, Bresson gets rid of the fat and serves only the finest, laying Michel’s story, a pickpocket with a dying mother and questionable principles, as simple as possible on the surface, illustrating his detachment not only from the people around him but also from the corrupt and blasé society that he willingly submits himself to. Michel is aware of the consequences of his actions, but his motivation is no longer grounded in material needs but in adventure, something that rationalizes his lack of meaningful relationships, and his dependence on thrill and danger.
Bresson’s language can alienate the unacquainted but it bears gifts to those who are patient. There are breathtaking moments of tension, those that happen vaguely in the movie but mostly in the viewer’s mind, and they are accomplished with such ease that one wonders if the French are really that oblivious to their surroundings. That sequence at the train station more than halfway through the film displays Bresson’s ability to stun with the simplest of weapons. Michel and his two partners take turns in sliding hands into passengers’ suits and pockets, taking cash out of purses and bags, grabbing arms and filching prized watches, and Bresson shows fingers and faces, nonchalant looks and quick strides, person after person, trick after trick, all dry and terse, everything going smooth for the three thieves. It’s an organized crime in a public place, and Bresson wastes no time in shooting the scenes in a calculated manner—not in slow motion but in slow, larger-than-life contact—being able to situate Michel in the backdrop of the life he chooses to have, knowing that sooner or later the authorities are going to catch up on him and bare their handcuffs. “You’re not in the real world. You share no interests with others,” Jeanne, the kind neighbor who takes care of his ill mother, says. Later on Michel realizes the truth of this observation. She fancies him and visits him in prison. Like the doors that he always leaves open, she waits until he comes back because he always does, guided by guilt and comprehension, struggling from solitude. Bresson offers sympathy and Michel does not refuse.