Friday, March 10, 2017

Pickpocket (1959)

France, 75 minutes
Director/writer: Robert Bresson
Photography: Leonce-Henri Burel
Music: J.B. Lulli
Editor: Raymond Lamy
Models: Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, Cesar Gattegno, Pierre Leymarie, Jean Pelegri, Pierre Etaix, Kassagi, Dolly Scal

All movies by director and writer Robert Bresson are at least a little odd—austere, slow-moving affairs, marked by confounding editing rhythms and unnatural performances from stunningly beautiful people. In line with the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, I probably like Pickpocket second-best of all his movies, after Au Hasard Balthazar. It attempts to do a few things at once: retell Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment story, demonstrate the grace and practical realities of pickpocketing (the movie was actually banned for a time in Finland as too instructive), and, as ever from the deeply spiritual Roman Catholic filmmaker, ask us to ponder the eternal mystery of living. The question Bresson forever pursues is how to show the movements of the soul. I have mixed feelings about that, but I don't doubt his sincerity, for all the obvious potential for pretension and all he may be held responsible for.

Frankly, in Balthazar, I'm more interested in the donkey, and in Pickpocket, I'm more interested in the tricks of the deft criminal trade. Pickpocket is not exactly documentary, and not really that informative either (Finland notwithstanding). But it's typically clinical, with appropriate numerous close-ups on hands in action. As criminal skills go, pickpocketing is arguably one of the most theatrical, involving close work with blind hands and fingers and a magician's ability to distract coupled with a skill for going still in a crowd to become invisible. I've seen footage of stage magicians picking pockets and removing watches and belts from apparently oblivious audience volunteers. Among other things, Pickpocket validates that incredible spectacle with examples of intricate wallet lifting (solo and in teams) and even watches removed from wrists with their owners unaware.

But, for better or worse, I think that's intended more as a kind of sideshow. The first thing we see in Pickpocket, even before the titles or any images, is a note, whose provenance is unclear (unless Bresson is prone to speaking of himself, Charles Barkley style, in the third person): "The style of this film is not that of a thriller. Using image and sound, the filmmaker strives to express the nightmares of a young man whose weaknesses lead him to commit acts of theft for which nothing destined him." [line break] "However, this adventure, and the strange paths it takes, brings together two souls that may otherwise never have met."

Those souls are Michel (Martin LaSalle), also known casually by viewers as Raskolnikov, a fine specimen of a young man, and Jeanne (Marika Green), the most beautiful woman I've seen anywhere for months, and I watch a lot of movies. Michel is unfortunately prone to lapses of carrying on about superior men who are above the law. This tendency is most excited in him in the presence of a high-ranking police official, so really there's not much hope for Michel on the quotidian plane. He's obviously good at what he does. He's making a meager but comfortable living by it, and attracting the talents of others as the movie goes along. But what he does is immoral, so no hope for him. He has other serious moral failings as well. His mother is dying and he refuses to see her, afraid to face her death. Jeanne is the mother's neighbor. She spends more and more time caring for his mother, badgering Michel to help out, and looking beautiful. But Michel is above all that, etc., and only pursues his own reckless way.

Pickpocket is also marked by a strange and deliberate sound design, filled with footsteps and murmuring voices alternating with loud swells of Jean-Baptiste Lully's lush and fraught orchestral work in calculated bursts. The sound is inserted in a manner similar to the bumptious editing, which in numerous small ways—holding on one shot too long, cutting away from another too soon, drowning out voices by the music—works to undercut any sense of the usual movie comforts. This is also a movie about a certain kind of anxiety, engendered by separating from the moral order, and its technique works to reinforce that unease constantly.

Well, spoiler alert, in the end Michel is finally caught and that's all there is to that. With eight minutes to go in this very short movie he goes to prison. At first he suffers from his arrogance because he was caught. He's no better than the inferior men that surround him after all and he has to face that fact. At once he realizes he loves Jeanne and that's all that matters. The final image memorably shows them separated by a wall of prison bars. "Oh, Jeanne, to reach you at last, what a strange path I had to take." The end. Music continues to play, very loud, on black screen. Hey, what happened to that 75 minutes I had? It was just here. Sorry, couldn't resist the joke. Really, Pickpocket is worth seeing all kinds of ways.


  1. Takes me awhile, but eventually I catch up to you. You seem to think Marika Green was pretty :-). There's a documentary you may have seen from the mid-2000s, where the director catches up with the three main "actors". Green, who was in her 60s by then, remained beautiful. My fave bit of trivia: she is the aunt of by beloved Eva Green.

  2. I love that Bresson always wanted to call his casts models rather than actors. It says something about what he was going for. Great trivia -- I didn't know that.