Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Pickpocket is not a film that elicits ordinary reactions. It will either appear a perplexing blank slate, or as commentarian James Quandt says, it will recede into its own mystery, pulling the viewer in with it. Brilliant students of cinema are perhaps capable of seeing Pickpocket cold and coming away transformed, a reaction we often read about in film studies of Robert Bresson. I doubt that is what will happen with most viewers, for Bresson's deliberately intellectual approach is going to be a long reach for all but the most dedicated and focused audiences. It's undeniably refined in its cinematics; by paying close attention Savant thinks he perceives most of what's going on. But I still wasn't visited by the transcendent emotional rush some critics rave about, the consciousness-raising event that made Paul Schrader into a career filmmaker. Although I'm no longer a young film student eager for the new experience, it's still a bit like getting left behind after the Rapture ... you know, nobody still around but you, me and all the French donkeys.
Criterion's special edition helps make Pickpocket a superior DVD experience. Along with their Diary of a Country Priest and
Au hazard Balthazar (and don't forget New Yorker's L'argent), Robert Bresson is starting to come into focus!
Loner Michel (Martin LaSalle) considers himself too 'special' to work like others and cultivates an interest in public sneak-thievery -- pickpocketing. His friend Jacques (Pierre Leymarie) doesn't understand him, along with Jeanne (Marika Green), a neighbor of his mother whom he seems afraid to visit after once stealing from her. Michel falls into league with two accomplices led by a particularly talented thief (Kassagi). He seems hopelessly addicted to his habit, which can only end in one way.
Pickpocket is first and foremost a director's picture ... I haven't seen a movie that so ruthlessly channels the contributions of actors and the camera to the director's purposes. As has been repeated in almost every review of a Bresson film, he calls his on-screen talent 'models' and insists that they be non-actors. He not only directs them to behave without expression or theatrics, he uses techniques to keep his cast from performing in any ordinary way. If a 'model' says his line with too much emphasis or meaning, the shot is re-taken as many times as Bresson feels are necessary to 'deaden' the performance into a rote, neutral delivery.
So what we get are realistic people in naturalistic environments - here a succession of drab rooms and public places like metro platforms and a racetrack - behaving in a way that expresses nothing beyond the exact words they say and things they do. Almost nothing is given a special inflection. The usual actor-audience communication is interrupted and we relate to the actor as a conduit to the director's meaning. This is the exact opposite of another director, Alfred Hitchcock, who is known for sometimes using his actors as posed 'objects' while he communicates his ideas 'around' their presence. Bresson makes whole movies like that, without compromise.
Pickpocket purposely challenges the audience to become involved in Bresson's personal theories of how movies work. He strips away surface concerns, leaving a film without theatrical pretenses and few familiar signals to tell us how to react. The film offers no psychological explanations for Michel's behavior. Michel mumbles a few unconvincing words about Nietschian supermen existing above the common morality, but we aren't convinced that he believes what he's saying. Pickpocket doesn't fit human behavior into a cause-and-effect dramatic pattern - the 'characters' are essentially as unknowable as strangers we see on the street. Presumptions about their motivations and makeup are all guesswork. Michel never gives reasons for his desire to steal. Jeanne never offers explanations why her life turns out the way it does, either.
Pickpocket is about personal enterprise as a substitute for a meaningful life. Michel's thievery provides him with an identity free of outside control. Only when his liberty is taken away does he seem to be capable of appreciating another person. Despite the dramatic final voice-over line (which sounds suspiciously like Michel narrating his own life in the past-tense) the movie doesn't convince us that he's having a real change of heart.
According to several of the writers on Pickpocket, Bresson's aim is to create movies that communicate directly with the viewer, or more accurately, cause the viewer to communicate better with their own feelings. As almost everything we feel about Michel we must provide for ourselves, we essentially create his character our of our own experiences ... Michel becomes our mirror. We can't account for everything we do -- all the petty 'crimes' of the day -- and we have the same reactions he does to setbacks and failures. We're sorry only that things didn't turn out as we had hoped, and we often fall short of taking real responsibility for our acts. It's a fascinating reflexive puzzle.
Watching Pickpocket is looking at a movie filmed in a 'foreign' visual language. Shots are naturalistic but actions are not. Michel, Jeanne and Michel's friend Jacques move as if it took a conscious act of will to do simple things like turn around or look in a certain direction. All the while, they have a slightly glazed look in their eyes, like Pod people not quiet comfortable in human bodies. Sitting in his room, Michel doesn't seem to have an opinion about anything, only a vague discontent. He behaves contrarily in public, unable to commit to a few minutes of civility with his friends. It's as if he wants change in his life, wants his secrets to get out so that whoever is responsible for his existence will make something happen. He doesn't feel like it can happen from within. Jeanne looks at him in a maddening way (interested? Neutral?) and to get her to react he has to feed her suspicions about himself - "How do I live without a job?" Michel doesn't realize he's an egotist, that other people are just as capable of living walled up in their own skins.
Bresson's interest centers on the crime of pickpocketing. The themes of the director's other movies were petty rural crime (Balthazar) church work (Diary) and petty urban crime (L'argent); Bresson uses the bulk of his camera resources recording repeated sneak-thief work rehearsed and in public. Using the sleight-of-hand skills of professional magician and pickpocketing demonsrator Kassagi, we see repeated pickpocket 'touches' carried off both singly and in coordinated attacks. When Kassagi works in concert with Michel and a third man, they're like invisible agents, lifting wallets and rifling purses with magical skill. Conversely, when Bresson shows Michel acting on his own in racetrack crowds and subways, his crimes are purposely artificial, even unconvincing. Michel jams up to people and makes eye contact with them, seemingly telegraphing his intentions. The stealing is shown so baldly we think that the victim must be aware of it. The guilty thrill of Michel's crimes contains the feeling one has in those strange dreams almost everyone has, being in public in one's pajamas or naked. People don't seem to notice but you're convinced they'll be on to you any second.
Pickpocket is so compact that it doesn't communicate the same contempt for mankind we get from Balthazar and L'argent. It's said to generate the same strong religious response as Diary of a Country Priest. The void at the center of Michel's life seems to call out for something -- faith? -- to guide him, and some aspects of the final shot validate this interpretation. Compared to Bresson, alienation filmmakers like Antonioni and Bergman might as well be working in soap operas with episode recaps and insistent undescoring to emphasize the author's intention. Robert Bresson's Pickpocket is close to that 'pure cinema' they talked about so endlessly in film school.
Criterion's disc of Pickpocket is presented handsomely restored and digitally scrubbed, as we have come to expect from that company, with a flawless flat B&W transfer. The audio is also crystal clear. When one of Bresson's infrequent bursts of classical music comes through, we seem to feel it before we hear it.
There are a lot of extras on this disc, none of which will lead the blind to a full understanding of Bresson -- Savant would be dishonest to make that claim on his own behalf. But the extras provide viewpoints and clues to ponder. James Quandt's commentary is a formal analysis of the film that holds it in proper reverence while pointing out its endless parade of oddities. He notes the apparent disconnect between Michel and his voiceover, and notes that everything in the movie seems organized in symmetrical pairs - trips to the racetrack, talks to the policeman, etc. The endlessly eloquent Bresson speaks on an old French television show and our own Paul Schrader provides a video interview explaining how Bresson inspired him to become a filmmaker. All of these witnesses (even Bresson, to some extent) seem privvy to a miracle, the essence of which cannot be communicated through speech. If cinema really is capable of saying things that can't be turned into words spoken or written down, then Bresson is the real-deal cinema guru of them all.
There's also a fun TV docu in which Babette Mangolte tracks down all three 'model' actors in Pickpocket, proving to us that human beings did indeed make the movie; she finds lead actor Martin La Salle living and working in 'obscure fame' in Mexico City. There's a Q&A session with actress Marika Green from a 2000 screening and a bizarre French television show in which illusionist Kassagi performs magic tricks like eating razor blades while in a dreamlike calm.
"Culture critic" Gary Indiana provides a glib insert essay replete with insights and intimidating scholarly analysis. The man clearly knows his subject.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: commentary by film scholar James Quandt; video introduction by writer-director Paul Schrader; The Models of "Pickpocket a 2003 documentary by filmmaker Babette Mangolte; 1960 interview with Bresson, from the French television program Cinepanorama; Q&A on Pickpocket, with actress Marika Green and filmmakers Paul Vecchiali and Jean-Pierre Ameris fielding questions at a 2000 screening of the film; Footage of sleight-of-hand artist and Pickpocket consultant Kassagi, from a 1962 episode of the French television show La piste aux etoiles; essay by novelist and culture critic Gary Indiana. Kate Elmore produced the disc.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 10, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson