Debbie at Moon in Gemini is hosting The Greatest Film I’ve Never Seen Blogathon, which is a fabulous idea since it is an opportunity for everyone to discover or re-discover classic and “must-see” films, or even find hidden gems. I have chosen to write on Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket” because it is considered one of the greatest of films (at least in some circles). It is a definite achievement of Robert Bresson, an acclaimed film director, and the film is ranked as one of the greatest films by the Sight & Sound magazine (the 2012 poll). Moreover, Roger Ebert, the late popular film critic, once included it in his “Great Movies” list. And, “Pickpocket” is great, just not in a conventional way. This is because Bresson is a French director who practices some form of austerity in his films, and his films do have a minimalistic quality, even though all the philosophical observations in his movies more than make up for the understated presentation or plot.
This film is Bresson’s debut as a scriptwriter for his movie, but it is also fair to say that he was in some way adapting Dostoevsky’s novel “Crime and Punishment” (1866) to make this film because “Pickpocket” more or less follows the stages of Dostoevsky’s novel and has similar characters. Like in the classic novel, Bresson is preoccupied with fear, guilt and redemption in his story as we follow Michel (Martin LaSalle), a recently released thief, who struggles to get back to his “job”. Michel is reclusive and apathetic, but he does make friends with Jeanne (Marika Green), a young woman and his mother’s neighbour, and has a friend called Jacques. Bresson conveys to the screen the intrigue of the trade which is called pick-pocketing, as well as its dangerous, claustrophobic and lonely nature. What works best in the film is the portrayal of Michel as a societal outsider who tries inwardly to come to light and good. The main character becomes quite sympathetic, maybe even more sympathetic than in “Crime Punishment”, because the crimes of Michel are less horrendous than the murders of Raskolnikov.
Bresson once recommended to build one’s film “on white, on silence and on stillness”, and some of this advice is evident in “Pickpocket”. The film, which is minimalistic in its presentation, almost solely concentrates on the main character, while it builds its gloomy Kafkaesque atmosphere as a setting. The inexplicable awkwardness of the characters as they converse with one another and the oppressing surroundings probably reflect the heaviness of Michel’s conscience, as he goes on his daily pick-pocketing activities. When the film does not concentrate on Michel’s dilemmas, it presents a quite insightful world of small thieves operating in a large city. We get to know their practices and trainings, for example, the fact that they must exercise their fingers constantly for them to remain flexible for the job, and we do get to know the thieving techniques used, such as the diversion of a victim’s attention. Apparently, the art of pick-pocketing was so realistically presented in the movie that the film was banned in Finland until 1965, if IMDb is to be believed. And, the practices of thieves are quite intriguing to watch, because Bresson zooms his camera on the actions of the quick hands of thieves, and also on bags and wallets.
“Pickpocket” is not heavy on action and may appear slow-moving. However, for the lovers of psychological character studies, there is a lot here to discover. Part of the appeal of the film is that Michel is so enigmatic as a personality. He is going through some kind of an existential crisis and may have a depression. He feels alone in a city where he cannot have a legitimate job and has few friends. His responses in conversations are puzzling, and that mysterious aspect to his personality is also what keeps our interest in the story. For example, in one scene, where Michel successfully steals money, he muses to himself why he even needs them and is unsure what they will bring, and, in another scene, he quite categorically refuses to admit he needs a job. This contradictory information and Michel’s apathy may be off-putting for the viewers, but Bresson also knows that, only in this way, he can get at the core of his character’s uncertainty, presenting the character’s fear of the future. Michel has to appear both ordinary and extraordinary (or odd (a society’s stranger)) at the same time.
Michel’s relationship with his mother in the film is yet another aspect which confuses and unsettles. In writing the script, Bresson probably had regard to Camus’s “The Stranger” (1942), where the main character also shows outward indifference to his mother, even though, deep inside, he may love her as much as any other son would. Similarly, Michel inquires about his mother in the movie, who is on her death-bed, but he does not visit her at first. This behaviour puzzles Jeanne (Marika Green), who plays a role of ingénue in this story, because she does not take Michel for a heartless person. Even Michel’s relationship with members of the opposite sex in the movie is reminiscent of the existential work of Kafka, most notably in “The Trial” (1925). Michel remains polite and detached with Jeanne, while he repeatedly questions after the Last Judgement and even tries to justify his actions by recourse to Robin Hood-type scenarios. Paul Schrader is probably the man who simulated Bresson’s ideas more often in his films, and the inward existential anxiety of the male characters and the austere presentation are evident in Schrader’s script to “Taxi Driver” (1973) and in Schrader’s film “First Reformed“ (2018), respectively.
Martin LaSalle is a very interesting choice for the lead role of Michel. It is the actor’s debut and his self-consciousness sometimes shows, but that “fault” actually suits the film and its goals well. Michel should be a bit imperfect, shy and self-conscious how he presents himself to the world (he is an imperfect thief), and LaSalle delivers just that. Thieves should be “invisible” human beings, but the lead actor is handsome and memorable. He has these facial features which remind of Daniel Day-Lewis, who with his understated presentation and silent demeanour could nevertheless project the aura of utter conviction and belief. In the film, LaSalle has something of this quality too, and, with his silent stares and a quiet demeanour, the actor convinces the audience of his character’s internal struggle. Something similar could be said about Marika Green in the role of Jeanne. This is the actress’s debut, and she, as well as LaSalle, does not have to go far to find her character, since she and LaSalle play essentially themselves. Green was only 16 in the film, and Jeanne should be a bit self-conscious, shy and naïve young woman. Bresson once said that films “can only be made by by-passing the will of those who appear in them, using not what they do, but what they are.” In some way, it can be argued that LaSalle and Green definitely portray what they are (if only in some small dosage), for example, both are new to film-making, and, thus, unsure of everything.
“Pickpocket” is a French-language film with an unusual quality to it because it prioritises its character study, trying to delve into one solitary and misunderstood human condition. In that way, the film makes the biggest impact in its existentialist message, even though the director’s unhurried way to present scenes is also interesting. The only downside is that the film could have had more punch in the end regarding Michel’s remorse, which remains somewhat unconvincing. 9/10