Robert Bresson's Pickpocket (1959) is a challenging but ultimately rewarding viewing experience. As noted in its prologue, the film is not a thriller but something else entirely; the director's unique style, much of which works against conventional cinema language, deliberately throws the viewer off balance. For those unfamiliar with Bresson's work, the effect is something like a cross between the poetry of Cocteau and the laid bare formalism of Ozu, with Bresson ultimately achieving a kind of spiritual truth in a film that plays almost archly contrived.
The short (75 minutes) feature begins with Michel (Martin LaSalle), an unemployed Parisian, at the racetrack where for reasons not entirely known to him decides to steal money out of an unsuspecting lady's purse. The police pick him up as he leaves the racetrack, but release him for lack of evidence. Later however, as Michel visits with friend Jacques (Pierre Leymarie), it becomes clear that like Raskolnikov, Michel has a dogged policeman (Jean Pelegri) on his tail.
Later, ignoring the requests of his dying mother to visit her, despite the pleas of caretaker/neighbor Jeanne (Marika Green), Michel's fascination with pick-pocketing grows, and he eventually falls in with two more experienced thieves (Pierre Etaix and Kassagi). Though he never gets rich and continues to live in his hovel-like apartment, Michel's fascination with pick-pocketing consumes him to the point where he's lost all interest in Jacques' help in finding him a job, and unconcerned that his mysterious income only furthers suspicion against him.
Pickpocket eschews conventional film language in many ways. Bresson favors non-professional actors, and between their inexperience and Bresson's direction, instead of a bad performance they essentially deliver no performance at all, tending to deliver their lines flatly with almost no facial expressions for the viewer to look to. Bresson strips away all unnecessary sounds, so that at times, at crowded train stations and bustling city banks, the only things heard on the soundtrack might by the sound of squeaky shoes. Like Kurosawa he cuts against expectations, choosing to delete entirely scenes conventional filmmakers would consider vitally important, or linger on details other directors would be extremely reluctant to stay with.
Bresson's intent in this case to make the viewer uncomfortable. Perhaps rather than ask the him to identify with Michel, Bresson instead wants the viewer to experience a similar discomfort. Also, the film seems to be about a soulless atheist for whom pick-pocketing becomes an end to a means, so to speak. At times he talks with a Leopold & Loeb superiority but doesn't necessarily believe the theories that he espouses about supermen contributing to society by flirting with crime, but it's also clear to Michel that he really has nothing, a man almost receding into non-existence. (Even his suit, a size or two too big, makes him look like The Incredible Shrinking Man.) A loner and alone, even in the presence of others, he's a spiritual drifter for whom picking pockets becomes a kind of religion.
All this builds to a climax that viewers will either find transcendental or baffling. (This reviewer was impressed by Bresson's ingenuity but still unmoved by it.)
An unrelated but intriguing byproduct of the film is its ballet-like pick-pocketing scenes, which are fascinating much like the pool playing in the more conventionally approached but not dissimilar The Hustler (1961). The pickpockets ply their trade with incredible dexterity - the film is virtually a "How To" on the art that, like pool hustling, we fantasize becoming good at but dare not try in real life.
Video & Audio
Pickpocket is presented in its original full frame format in an excellent transfer that has a few age-related flaws but otherwise is pristine with especially strong blacks and a very sharp image. The mono soundtrack is especially clean, vital to fully appreciate Bresson's obvious attention to it; one imagines how uncomfortable it must be sitting at some campus screening in the '70s, listening to the soundtrack off a dirty 16mm print badly amplified. The DVD includes one minute of exit music after the picture has finished. The English subtitles are removable.
Criterion's DVD of Pickpocket has a number of useful extras. First is a Paul Schrader Introduction during which the writer-director calls Pickpocket "the most influential film in my creative life." His comments about the film are invaluable for Bresson neophytes; his talk is clear and concise and the segment does a good job of illustrating his points with clips from the film. I wish however that Criterion would stop calling these "Introductions" considering that these things should under no circumstances be looked at prior to watching the film. At least this one offers a spoilers warning. This segment runs nearly 15 minutes and is 16:9 enhanced.
Next is an interesting Audio Commentary by James Quandt, the senior programmer for the Cinematheque Ontario and editor of the monograph Robert Bresson. His talk is helpfully indexed, for those wishing to skip ahead to specific scenes or topics.
The Models of "Pickpocket" is a 16:9 documentary directed by Babette Mangolte produced in 2003 and runs 52 minutes. It follows the filmmaker's chance meeting with Pierre Leymarie, the actor who played Jacques, then follows her as she tracks down Marika Green (looking so young she either must have been a very young teenager when she made the film or made a pact with the Devil), and an elusive Martin LaSalle, who moved to Mexico about 35 years ago, where he appeared in pictures like Alucarda (Alucarda, la hija de las tinieblas, 1978).
Cinepanorama is a six-and-a-half minute excerpt from a 1960 French television program, where Bresson is interviewed (in an uncomfortably confrontational style) about Pickpocket. The obviously nervous director expresses his aims well.
A Q&A on Pickpocket is amateur video from a 2000 screening in Paris, where Green is joined by filmmakers Paul Vecchiali and Jean-Pierre Ameris. The hand-held camerawork is static and unsteady at times, but the talk is insightful. This segment is 4:3 and runs 13 minutes.
Kassagi, Michel's main accomplice in Pickpocket, appears in this segment from a 1962 French TV show, La piste aux etoiles. His sleight-of-hand is great, but the show itself, maybe a classier French Toast of the Town is intriguing all by itself. This segment runs 11 minutes.
Finally, a Trailer, in excellent shape and subtitled, does a good job selling the film for what it is, while also playing up its outwardly thriller appearance.
A portrait of a soul with nowhere to go, Pickpocket is a laconic, sometimes difficult but intriguing film from one of France's cinematic poets. Criterion has done another fine job, cramming a lot of insightful supplements which complement the film nicely.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.