Watching Robert Bresson’s 1959 black and white film Pickpocket, after having seen his earlier Diary Of A Country Priest and later Mouchette and Au Hasard Balthazar, is to see a great artist in mid-flight to apex. Pickpocket is not a great film, for it suffers from some of the tics that worked against Diary Of A Country Priest (notably the habit of the character writing down what will happen in a journal, speaking it to the audience, then seeing the action play out visually), but it also presages some of the more visually fenestral moments of the two later films. Part of this is likely to the fact that the screenplay was written by Bresson alone, not adapted from another source. But, on the negative side, the fact that Bresson preferred to use amateur actors (whom he referred to as models or mannekins) worked against him big time in this film.
The putative lead of the film, Michel (Martin LaSalle), has absolutely no acting ability, save a hang dog expression. Although far different in plot and temperament, this film reminded me of Jean-Pierre Melville’s later Le Samourai, with Alain Delon in the role of the antihero, save for the fact that, despite his seeming stoicness, Delon showed real acting chops. Anyway, the plot of the film is rather simple. Michel is a petty pickpocket whose tale is presented as a bildungsroman. He is caught at a local racetrack, after pilfering a lady’s purse, and we are given an ellipsis of his actual arrest. The fact that Bresson, like Yasujirô Ozu, deploys such in his films, shows him as an artist in growth mode. Michel is taken before a police inspector (Jean Pélégri) who surprisingly lets the thief go. Yet, he does so with some ulterior motives, as he seems to want to use Michel as some sort of experiment in human nature. At his apartment, we encounter Michel’s friend, Jacques (Pierre Leymarie), and the girl both men desire, Jeanne (Marika Green). Both suspect Michel’s true nature, but both overlook it.
We then get a scene which, while interesting, is so out of touch with even filmic reality, that it places the film wholly outside any hint of realism. Jacques gets the police inspector to meet Michel and listen to his ‘supermen’ theory (hello Nietzsche) of criminals above social ethics. Soon, a more experienced pickpocket (Henri Kassagi), teaches Michel tricks, and introduces him to another accomplice (Pierre Étaix). After a number of well choreographed scenes between Jeanne, Jacques, and Michel (which explores their relationships), Michel’s mother’s (Dolly Scal) death (also elided), and those involving the three pickpockets at their craft, we find Michel getting paranoid, after his two accomplices are busted at the train station where the trio pulled many of their thefts- including the longest and most well choreographed scene in the film, accusing Jeanne of first suspecting him of thievery, then chiding her over not getting the obvious. Fearing the inspector’s men closing in on him, Michel heads to Milan, Rome, and England for two years (also elided) before returning to fins Jeanne had a child with Jacques, who abandoned her. He returns to thievery, but takes care of Jeanne and her child, only to get nabbed, again, at the racetrack, when he tries to pilfer the wallet of a cop. This is one of many circularities and repetitions in the film. In jail, Jeanne visits Michel, and Michel seemingly realizes that he loves Jeanne, and that his life of crime has been a waste. It’s a quite weak ending to an otherwise intriguing film, for nothing in the film suggests that Michel is capable of such an epiphany, and even if he were, the actor LaSalle is not capable of convincingly portraying such depth. The result is almost painfully phony to watch. The most that can be said of Pickpocket is that it’s a film that promises more than it delivers.
Naturally, most critics fell in to the easy trap of comparing this film to Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment. But it’s a facile comparison, for Crime And Punishment deals with far deeper and more existential issues, and has a hero that is sociopathic. Michel, by comparison, is a punk. Period. Roger Ebert wrote: ‘In this story you may sense echoes of Dostoyevsky’s Crime And Punishment, another story about a lonely intellectual who lived in a garret and thought he had a license, denied to common men, to commit crimes. Bresson’s Michel, like Dostoyevsky's hero Raskolnikov, needs money in order to realize his dreams, and sees no reason why some lackluster ordinary person should not be forced to supply it. The reasoning is immoral, but the characters claim special privileges above and beyond common morality.’ First, Michel is no intellectual. He is a wannabe who can barely comprehend his own existence, much less its utter folly and humor. Second, while we hear Michel utter his frustrations, none of those frustrations seem borne out of a lack of pelf, merely out of his own failings. He seems to rationalize this as why he has a right to steal from others, but never do we see nor hear any reason why he needs the money he steals. He simply wants to lash out at society. He does not need it to pay his mother’s medical bills; in fact, he does not even care to visit the women until she is on her deathbed. So, Ebert’s character motivation (and the concomitant comparison to Raskolnikov) is fatuous, especially when Pickpocket is compared to other, greater films more manifestly derived from the Dostoevsky work, like Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Perhaps the only real comparison between the two tales- Dostoevsky’s and Bresson’s- is that both ultimately have very poor endings which are ethical and intellectual copouts to the tales the works present up until that point.
The DVD, by The Criterion Collection, is a solid offering. The audio commentary, by film scholar James Quandt, is the weakest feature. It’s an off the rack commentary read in a monotone by an intellectual with no apparent desire to connect scenes with the comments he is spewing. Even worse, Quandt seems to lean in the direction of some critics who see homosexuality underlying Michel’s relationships with his two accomplices, culminating in his final scene’s conversion from the ‘dark side,’ back to heterosexuality. Yet, no evidence is offered by Quandt, nor the critics he quotes, as to what exactly in the film is symbolic of homosexuality. It seems any time male comity is displayed it’s taken as a symbol of underlying homoerotic tension. Simple male on male camaraderie seems to be unthinkable in a word so oversexualized as to seem to want to imbue overtones into everything. To such critics, every moment of indecision or reaction is a beard for sexual impotence or satisfaction. It’s just bizarre, and even more so that Quandt refuses to debunk it thoroughly. That said, he does offer some decent tidbits about Bresson’s working style, but overall, it’s a subpar effort. There is a video introduction to the film by writer-director Paul Schrader. He wrote a very poor, pretentiously worded, sub-undergraduate level book called Transcendental Style In Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer that I rightly ripped, but his love for Bresson is genuine, and he makes occasional good points about Bresson’s ellipses and repetitions; even if he thinks this film is perfect. It’s not, and ironically, Schrader’s own screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver shows how much more could be explored in this area. Other features include a documentary called The Models Of ‘Pickpocket,’ by filmmaker Babette Mangolte, a 1960 interview with Bresson, from the French television program Cinépanorama, interviews with actress Marika Green and filmmakers Paul Vecchiali and Jean-Pierre Améris at a 2000 screening of the film, sleight-of-hand artist and Pickpocket consultant Henri Kassagi, from a 1962 episode of the French television show La Piste Aux Étoiles, the French theatrical trailer, and a short essay in the DVD booklet by novelist and culture critic Gary Indiana.
Technically, the 75 minute film, shown in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, is solid. The camera work of cinematographer Léonce-Henri Burel is especially good during the thievery scenes- such as when we get visual macguffins where the camera follows a person or thing (like a valise), ala Hitchcock, only to have the ‘real action’ occur in what might seem to be a transitional scene or even ‘moment.’ There are also some interesting shots that clearly influenced later films, like one of Michel watching through a partly opened door, his soon to be accomplice waiting outside his apartment building to meet him. This is clearly echoed in a number of shots in Taxi Driver, most notably when Travis Bickle is rejected by the ice queen Betsy he desires, and the camera pans down a filthy hallway to the outside world. But, other than these, there are no standout framings nor ‘moments’ that are truly classic and emblazoned into the viewer’s mind. Antoine Archimbaud’s soundtrack is very minimal, but when deployed, the music is often schmaltzy. Bresson would have done well to forego scoring this film.
All in all, while the film is good- mainly on the strength of several bravura isolated scenes, it often comes off as something akin to Neo-Realism Lite. There is nothing of the real pathos nor insight that invests some of the classics from Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, and the Italian classics that were made a decade before this film. Consequently, the film comes off as all head with little heart or soul, and, despite its occasional bravura moments, the film is not particularly deep, and especially so considering it against the titanic achievements of Mouchette and Au Hasard Balthazar. Also, there are numerous little moments that just clunk, starting with the film’s titled opening, wherein words scrawl across the screen and tell us of what we are about to witness, that this film is not a thriller but a work of art about the communion of two souls. This overt invocation of Romantic bidungsromans just tanks, in and of itself, and because it utterly destroys the film’s end. We know that Michel and Jeanne will end up together, and, worse, the film does not mitigate this solecism by providing a meaningful how the end is reach, even if we know what the end will be.
So, Pickpocket is not a great film, much less a masterpiece, in any sense of the term that has relevance, but it is a film that shows potential for plumbing things at a level deeper than even films that are better realized. Unfortunately for it, and its viewers, that potential would only be realized in later Bresson offerings. Of course, there are certainly worse things in life, though. Ask Michel or his portrayer.