Crime · Criterion Collection · Drama · France

#314 Pickpocket (1959)

Robert Bresson, The Sublime Minimalist Part 5

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#314 Pickpocket

1959 // France // Robert Bresson

Criterion Collection (LINK)

Bresson’s Sleight of Hand

Bresson’s fifth feature Pickpocket opens with a statement asserting the nature of the film and proclaiming a non-thriller itself, probably too self-concern for a master to insert such a preface, but indeed for anyone expecting a sheer crime thriller like Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953) or unfamiliar with the austere style of Robert Bresson beforehand, they might either find the subversion surprisingly impressive or simply be bored by the monotonous formalism.

Amidst Bresson’s oeuvre, what impressed me the most in Pickpocket is how Bresson “transcended” pragmatism into spirituality, how he let the action speak for itself, how he framed objects and hands as a sacred ritual, and most importantly how he reduced and minimalised in order to expand his filmic universe. At the end it’s all about the style, thus the philosophy, that had emerged like an obsession of a filmmaker. For Michel (Martin LaSalle), the phlegmatic young man wearing the same rugged suit throughout in Pickpocket, his obsession, or erotic displacement, is pocket-picking. His idol is George Barrington from a book called The Prince of Pickpockets, his theoretical philosophy believes “superior” individuals should be permitted to transgress the law, and that’s him.

Michel, notwithstanding the monotonous “modelling” face, is the most complex character in Bresson’s cinematic universe. There seems to be an innate impulse that urges him to steal. Michel had stolen from his mother before in which she withdrew her complaint to the police after she realized, unknown to him, that he was the thief. Thereafter he avoids visiting her due to his guilt until she is about to die. He is arrested by the police after stealing at the racetrack during the opening scene but is released later due to lack of evidence. His friend Jacques (Pierre Leymarie) helps him get a job, but upon a ride of subway, Michel is unconsciously drawn to a pickpocket in action and subsequently follows the same career pathway. Yet he remarks afterwards that “pickings are poor and not worth the risk.” It suggests that picking pockets satisfies a more primal, narcissistic need, the same reason that he thinks himself the “master of the world” at the racetrack, instead of the pragmatic financial reason.

The rationale behind his actions is sometimes enigmatic and beyond comprehension, a homosexual subtext had been proposed from some film critics, which is explicable and could be true, although I didn’t catch it at all even watched the film for three times. The male accomplice (Kassagi), the homosexual linkage I believe, appears out of nowhere suddenly. He wanders in front of Michel’s building, and later stalks him. But once they converse in the cafe, they “become friends within fifteen minutes.” Michel learns all the masterful stealing skills from him, he practices the flexibility of his hands by playing pinball, which eventually peaks in the climactic superb pocket-picking sequence in Gare de Lyon train station.

The intricate, supple movements of each theft are all delicately shot, edited in quick cut with fluidity, accompanied with musical passage from Lully, as a whole accentuates precisely the grace and elegance of the “art” of theft. Hence concentrating the eroticism and irresistibility it would be. On the other, Michel unconsciously attracts the suspicion from the Police inspector (Jean Pélégri) proves his contradictory nature to what he’s doing. His obsessive-compulsive personality drives him towards the sociopathic criminal activity (with possible homoerotic components) even he knows it’s a set-up, but it’s also possible that he unawarely wish himself to be caught, to be stopped from committing the obsession.

The last act shows the power and the persistence of another’s love could save a man for redemption, but not without punishment first. Jeanne (Marika Green), the neighbor of Michele’s mother, has always been a friend to Michel. She is posed as a potential romantic lover further complicates the sexual ambiguity of the film. Michel comes back after leaving Paris for two years evading from police, he finds out Jeanne has already had a child with Jacques who subsequently abandoned her. Michel promises to take care of her and her child and start to find a job, but is eventually drawn back to thefting and is arrested, like an unconscious wish to put an end to his nightmare. Michel’s last minute transformation in the prison is by far the least credible and explicable, almost like a miracle out of a predestined fate. Stylistically, Bresson refined his revolutionising first-person narration, use of ellipses, sounds and off-screen space from Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and A Man Escaped (1956), and took a deeper dive into the psychology of obsession and sexual ambiguity. Nonetheless the end is a complete conclusion, as God finally “opens” Michele’s eyes and let him “see” Jeanne for the first time. Michel admits he “believed in God for three minutes,” nonetheless everything is the will of God.

Film Rating: 4.5/5
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