Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Robert Bresson's Pickpocket is, from one point of view, a watered-down version of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, one that replaces the murderous, possibly insane former student Raskolnikov with a mere petty thief and adjusts the vitriol of the work accordingly. But Pickpocket is one of the few films that just about every cineaste would name a masterpiece. Heck, when you factor in some people's inherent need to rail against the universally beloved, Pickpocket likely has more ardent defenders than Citizen Kane. That can certainly be attributed to the visual style, which mixes the sociopolitical relevance and emotional identification of de Sica with the aesthetic perfection of Kubrick, but Bresson's script does not lose focus for taming his intelligent-but-disaffected protagonist; rather, he uses his blank pickpocket to reveal the corruption and oppressive greed of society.

Unlike Raskolnikov, Michel turns to crime before he runs out of options. The Russian was starving, an ex-student because he couldn't afford food, much less university tuition, but Michel simply finds pleasure in theft. Bresson liked to use nonprofessional actors, but Martin LaSalle is so perfect in the role it's hard to imagine a star upstaging him. In LaSalle Bresson has a perfect blank slate: emotions never race across Michel's face, even as he explains in voiceovers his fear during his man larcenous engagements.

Michel is caught and arrested after his first theft, but the cops must release him due to lack of evidence. Undeterred, he returns to thieving, and even in his dispassionate narration we hear hints of excitement with his new "profession." He does not visit his ailing mother, cannot act upon his initial feelings for the woman who lives next to his mother and asks him to visit more often, but he cannot control the impulse to steal. Bresson inserts numerous shots of Michel's hands, photographing them with crystal clarity as he exercises them, writes with them and nicks wallets. He devotes so much attention to them not only because the film's action occurs through them but because they are the conduits that re-connect Michel to the world around him.

A concerned friend arranges a meeting with the police inspector to try to talk some sense into the crook, but Michel simply regales the inspector with his feeble Nietzschian idea of supermen who are above the law. Nietzsche was at the heart of Crime and Punishment as well, but Bresson takes the character in another direction. Michel isn't above society so much as outside of it on the same axis: he recognizes that society is spiritually empty, fueled by a greed that he ironically never feels. But Michel also wants to be a part of it; he wants to muster up the strength to face his dying mom, he wants to ask out Jeanne, but he just can't do it. Larceny then becomes more a sexual experience than a quest for money, and he worries about cops finding his stash of money because of its psychological, possibly sexual attachment. In some ways, Bresson filters the concept of the Ubermensch through the guilt that can only come from a Catholic upbringing.

Bresson liked to use an "actor-model" technique, wherein he stripped away the conventions of theatricality through strict rehearsals and choreographed everything to be at once naturalistic and so thoroughly planned that the actors seem mere puppets standing in for the director. It's a tricky balance, but it pays off in Bresson's execution: everyone, down to the extras, makes every movement with visible determination, and here it highlights the perfunctory nature of the world. Everything is calculated, all interactions choreographed according to mores and traditions; in this world, the unemotive Michel the most expressive of all.

Only twice does he betray any feelings to other characters. When the cops begin to apply too much pressure, Michel harangues the police inspector, but the way he methodically throws down a book to express his anger reveals how he's just putting on a show for the inspector, thinking that outrage is what a normal person would feel. The other display appears genuine; at last captured, Michel sits in prison in the end, removed from the confines of society and at last free -- has the incessant irony of this film sunk in yet? -- and so he can finally engage with the visiting Jeanne, who paves the path to his redemption, if you can call it that.

Pickpocket has some of the most strikingly aesthetic "streets" shots this side of Scorsese's early work. In particular, the scene where Michel and a group of other thieves orchestrate thefts on a train is, despite its brief length and lack of music, one of the most thrillingly edited action sequences ever filmed. Interestingly, neither the visual style nor the brilliant story takes precedence in the film; both aspects are so good and Bresson is such a master that the plot serves the aesthetics and vice versa. He might have made better films, but Bresson proves with his first original screenplay that he was a talent for the ages.

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