Reviews by Joyce Glasser pickpocket (1959) (from June 3, 2022 in selected cinemas) Cert. PG, 76 min. More information on the venues to follow this link.
Despite being 98 years old and having worked for 50 years, French screenwriter-director Robert Bresson only directed 14 films. But what movies! And all are part of the BFI’s Bresson retrospective, Sin and Redemption, which begins June 3 at the BFI Southbank. Arguably Bresson’s greatest film and certainly representative of his minimalist, austere, intense style and use of amateur actors, pickpocketwill be shown in selected cinemas across the UK.
Though Bresson’s paths chronologically crossed paths with recent French New Wave, the fervently Catholic director’s fifth feature has more in common with Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment than Godard Breathlessfilmed on the streets of Paris around the same time as pickpocket. The protagonists in both films portray professional, if petty, criminals, but Bresson puts the spotlight on crime itself, and the silent montages of professional pickpockets in action remain among the most exciting sequences in French cinema.
Michel (Martin LaSalle, an amateur actor in 1959) lives alone in a run-down bedroom, which not only suits this grumpy loner but demonstrates Bresson’s brilliant use of visual and psychological foreshadowing. The bed resembles a monk’s cell in its austerity and sense of confinement, the first hint that Michel may be doing penance for stealing from his bedridden mother. It also evokes a prison cell, which Michel knows is the inevitable end of his precarious existence.
His mother’s theft a year earlier is only presented later in the film and as a fait accompli. It becomes significant because Michel never imagined his mother suspected him or that the police had any connection with her until he learned the truth.
Michel puts the whole story together using only what he learns from a police inspector (the famous Algerian author, screenwriter and actor Jean Pélégri), whom he meets through his friend Jacques (Pierre Leymarie) and from Jeanne (Marika Green), the friendly neighbor his mother. His mother reported the theft to the police and then, realizing the culprit was Michel, withdrew the complaint.
Michel spends his time alone making entries in his diary that may tally with the off-camera narrative, which Bresson uses judiciously. Michel doesn’t steal for financial reasons, he steals for the fun of it, and Bresson makes that thrill tangible. The journal is both a place to record his euphoric feelings and the lessons he learns.
Michel treats his job as a craft. He is interested in a book about the 18th-century British adventurer George Barrington, who ran out of school after robbing his schoolmaster and, after being pardoned several times, ended up in Botany Bay. He studies diligently with two accomplices he meets (played by Kassagi and Pierre Etaix, respectively) who offer to teach him more sophisticated tricks of the trade, including “twos” and “threes”.
The sequences in which they carry out their rehearsed routines in the Gare de Lyon are so masterfully executed and filmed that the sleight of hand becomes a sensual pleasure. Bresson ensures that the thrill of the action is transmitted to the audience like in a high-quality magic show.
We hear voiceover as Michel recounts a trip to the race track, and then the warning: “I should have gone… I walked in the air, the world at my feet.” A minute later I was caught.” It’s interesting that while his victims are almost always men, this time he’s caught he’s been stealing from a woman—like his mother.
He is released but for the rest of the film he is pursued by the police inspector who serves a similar purpose as Porfiry in Crime and Punishment. Like Raskolnikov, Michel tries to justify his crime with a variation on this Superman theory. At one point, after Michel, the inspector (in plainclothes), and Jacques meet at a coffee shop, Jacques says to Michel, “He doesn’t care about your theories, but he does care about you.” Michel compensates for his feelings of inferiority or guilt with the Superman -Theory or does it suggest that Michel is a high school dropout but a well read one?
For both Dostoyevsky and Bresson, one side of the criminal values freedom and wants to avoid capture to validate his worth, and another side longs to be caught to alleviate guilt. But Michel’s guilt about stealing from strangers on the street is different from his guilt about being stolen, for once, by his mother. Michel knows he would be bored with the jobs his beleaguered friend Jacques is trying to secure for him, and he likes the danger and instant gratification of pickpocketing.
Given this inclination, the love story between Michel and Jeanne is problematic. Jeanne, a pretty, unprejudiced young woman, tries to find happiness with the hardworking, caring and honest Jacques, but seems attracted to Michel, who – now with a child – will not make life easy for her. Her relationship with Michel may be self-defeating, but Jeanne is the only one who can offer Michel salvation. It is thanks to Jeanne that he finally sees his mother before she dies.
Jeanne is quite obviously the rough equivalent of Sonia in Crime and Punishmentbut Bresson’s next film after that pickpocket would The trial of Joan of Arcand in pickpocket, Jeanne is a kind of martyr. Bresson opens the film with an odd omission pickpocket is not a thriller, but it has “the virtue of bringing together two souls who might otherwise never have met”. It may not be a traditional thriller, but can it possibly be a love story when the chances of the two souls living happily together are so slim?
Pickpocket is one of the stars in Robert Bresson’s brilliant constellation getting a BFI retrospective.
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