Director: Robert Bresson
Cast: Martin LaSalle, Marika Green
My Rating: ★★★★1/2, or 9/10
In Short: Brilliantly directed with top notch editing; thrilling, essential Bresson
Many people have asked why the characters in Bresson films speak so flatly, without emotion or humanity. There are many theories, but one that I think is particularly relevant when discussing Pickpocket is that what they say has little to no importance. The dialogue is rarely engaging, and what keeps the viewer on edge and so intensely involved is Bresson’s incredible direction and the stunning editing. Every image in this film is crucial and keeps the viewer deeply interested and glued to the screen.
The film is the story of Michel, a lonely long man whose emptiness and self-loathing, as well as his distanced and strained relationship with his sick mother (from whom he steals), has left him bitter and resorting to petty theft. At first he begins stealing wallets for the money, but eventually becomes addicted to the thrill of it, and the adrenalin that pumps through him as he makes the exchange from an unguarded breast pocket to his empty, hungry hand. Soliciting help from his best friend to get him a job, Michel is lonely and desperate but decides that pickpocketing is a suitable way of making a living. Eventually he meets an expert pocket thief, who teaches him his ways and sets him up to become a master at the craft. This leads to the unforgettable train station scene, which is a perfect example of fantastic editing, direction, and the slick movement of the characters through thick crowds. The scene alone has to rank among the greatest moments of Bresson’s career.
With Pickpocket, and its follow-up The Trial of Joan of Arc, Bresson made films noticeably shorter than the average feature. This is not at all because he has less of a story to tell, but because he has mastered how to tell it and no longer needs to take so long to do so. His visuals speak for themselves, putting into words and onto film images thought indescribable. He never needed actors to “act”; he simply needed them to do things, and not make a huge deal out of it like so many actors do today. He liked to refer to his actors as “models,” disregarding their skills at verbal communication and using them simply as tools for his story. His method is controversial, and often disagreed with, but it seems to me certainly to work. His films are not about happy young children picking flowers and admiring puppies in windows; the films of Robert Bresson are about society as a sickness; a terrifying place that teaches only greed and evil, and rewards the innocent with suffering. It is easy to label this worldview as cynical. I like to call it realistic.
In the 50s, the films of Bresson seemed to have happier endings than the 60s. Although Diary of a Country Priest ended with death, it was also an acceptance into the realm of Heaven and a revelation that “all is grace”. A Man Escaped ended as its title predicted. And Pickpocket… though Michel ends up in a prison cell, it is the film’s famous closing line (which I won’t reveal) that elevates the level of depression and absolute failure to perhaps a lighter, happier acceptance of fate. Pickpocket is also one of the rare films for which Bresson would actually use story to carry his own plot, rather than just letting actions occur. Bresson films usually have plot, but they rarely have story. L’Argent, his final film, has more of a story than any of them, yet Bresson intentionally makes it rather difficult to follow or even understand. While in Pickpocket, the viewer doesn’t learn anything, they feel closer to the character of Michel, for he is a victim and feels as all of us have felt at some time.
Robert Bresson knew how to create people who had come to the end of their rope, lost in a world of despair and loneliness, and in a sense, haven’t we all felt that way? Perhaps not as literally as I’ve put it, but at times we all feel tiny and helpless in a life that never ends until it ends, where every choice we make can be critical and things could be changed in seconds. With movies like Pickpocket, Bresson helps us to understand how in this world it is so easy to become like Michel, or alternately a victim of Michel; how dark and unforgiving the world can be, and how unsafe it can be simply to be standing in a public place. Bresson may be a cynic, but is that a bad thing? His films, however disturbing they may be, are important because they touch with certain issues in a way many filmmakers are too afraid – or perhaps more accurately, studios don’t see as useful or that audiences will benefit from – to tackle. Bresson is the saint of cinema, sacrificing his own reputation of decency so that audiences can see and experience things they often don’t realize are part of important social and moral issues.
Previous Films in the Bresson-athon:
Les anges du peche (1943)
Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
A Man Escaped (1956)
The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962)