Criterion Project #11: PICKPOCKET (1959)


Spine# 314

Year: 1959

Director: Robert Bresson

Well that was just lovely. I finished watching this film minutes ago and wanted to get some thoughts out right away because, honestly, I don’t remember liking Pickpocket the first time through.

Granted, it was several years ago when I first watched it, but I was underwhelmed. Or more to the point, perhaps, I didn’t appreciate what the film was doing. I missed the concept. Which is ridiculous to me now because Bresson uses a pre-credits text scroll to tell the audience right up front exactly what the film will be doing:

The style of this film is not that of a thriller. 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.

However, this adventure, and the strange path it takes, brings together two souls that may otherwise never have met.

An interesting tactic, to say the least. How often do we see a filmmaker address the audience in such a way? It certainly bakes inevitability into the text, but remains vague enough to pique the interest of the viewing public. What weaknesses? Whose souls will be brought together? Strange path?

We can ask no more of anyone or anything than to accomplish what they set out to do. That applies to this film as well.

In a structural sense, the “strange path” the narrative takes is no doubt a nod to the atypical nature of the story. It’s economical in its storytelling, and not just because the film is a swift 76 minutes long. Plot points not directly related to “express(ing) the nightmare” of the young man, Michel (Martin LaSalle), are briefly mentioned and then drift away.

In lieu of ancillary plot, we spend the entirely of the film with Michel as he plods through his slew of marks on the streets and subways of Paris. Again, Bresson stated the purpose of the film was to use sound and image to express the nightmare of being held captive by your weaknesses. In a sense, Bresson imbues the character and the film with a similar mindset – no one else in this story is important but Michel.

I’m sure Michel would agree. A couple of his more prominent weaknesses are cockiness and selfishness, which makes for a bad cocktail in crime I would imagine. He resembles Icarus flying too close to the sun as he plays cat-and-mouse games with the police inspector like he’s a master criminal. The two men meet several times, many in which Michel philosophizes about the existence of “supermen” who can exist outside the law due to their contributions to society. More succinctly, he believes thieves are beneficial to society, though he never states why or how.

This comes across as suspicious to the police (duh), and reveals Michel’s arrogance and, frankly, his stupidity. He is the essence of someone in a new relationship or someone who discovered a new hobby. Or, maybe more apt, someone who took a new drug and got hooked. They become engulfed by the the scope and magnitude of what they’re taking part in, causing obsessive behavior. It forms their identity and no one can talk them out of it.

Because Michel is obsessive. Like a drug addict, Michel shuns those that love him, namely his mother, his best friend, and his mother’s neighbor, Jeanne (Marika Green), who has been taking care of her because Michel can’t be bothered with his own mother. He is only interested in bettering his craft, learning new tricks, and practice. The pleas of his dying mother, something that seems to cause Michel emotional pain after the fact, go unheard by her son.

The tragedy, of course, is the broken-hearted mother asking for her son to be with her during her last moments. What amount of ego and selfishness must one have to treat their loved ones so shamefully?

Which brings us to another of his weaknesses – pride. Surely this goes hand-in-hand with his ego, but it isn’t his ego that prevents him from caring for his mother. Michel can’t stand the idea of his mother knowing he’s a thief, or that he stole money from her at one point. Indeed, much of the story boils down to the fact that Michel doesn’t like himself very much. The film is his journey through the bowels of self-hate. Barring outside influence, no one who respects his- or herself would behave in such ways as Michel. And it’s that lesson that he has to learn, and what Bresson is alluding to in the opening text.

I extracted so much richness and discovered so many layers from those 76 minutes this time around, like I was watching a different movie. Strangely, I did remember many of the scenarios that take place in the film, which no doubt speaks to the strength of the visuals. Again, it had been several years (over a decade for sure) since I first watched Pickpocket, and it feels like a different movie to me.

It’s the old adage – did I change, or did the movie change? Perhaps the answer will be revealed the further I wade into this project. For now, I’m just happy to have given this film another spin and discover my appreciation for it.

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