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Robert Bresson directed only thirteen features during his 40-year career, making up in rigor and precision what he lacked in speed and spontaneity. Nearly all bear the marks of his unique style, telling intellectually probing stories through immaculately crafted images, daringly restrained performances, and soundtracks blending sparsely written dialogue with momentary musical phrases. They also reflect his fascination with philosophical questions about free will, predestination, and divine grace.
Pickpocket (1959) is the first of three Bresson films inspired by the towering Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose writing - in this case, the 1866 novel Crime and Punishment, although it isn't named in the credits - expresses a spiritual yearning and moral questioning that closely resemble Bresson's deepest concerns. On one level, Pickpocket is a story of sin, guilt, and redemption. More profoundly and urgently, it's a piercing condemnation of the materialism, greed, and declining human values that Bresson regards as curses of the modern world.
We first meet Michel, the film's eponymous criminal, at a racetrack in Paris, where he slips money from a woman's purse while everyone else watches the horses galloping down the homestretch. The scene introduces at least three themes that are central to Bresson's movies. One is the contradiction between chance and destiny: there's no apparent reason why a certain horse will win or why Michel has singled out this particular woman to rob, yet if we had a God's-eye view of the cosmos, the reasons might be as plain as day. Another is the hunger some inward-looking people have for walling themselves off from the everyday world: when he isn't busy as a thief, Michel devotes most of his lonely, alienated life to reading and writing in his sparsely furnished garret. A third theme is the power and complexity of addiction: when a person becomes dependent on certain ways of living and thinking, what happens to free will and self-determination?
Like memorable figures in other Bresson films - the alcoholic pastor in Diary of a Country Priest (1951), for instance, or the suicidal young man in The Devil, Probably (1977) - Michel is addicted to seemingly self-destructive ways of life that may, paradoxically enough, contain the seeds of his ultimate deliverance. For the heroine of Bresson's The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) and the donkey in his Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), salvation can come only after death; for other characters, such as the prisoner in A Man Escaped (1956) and Michel in Pickpocket, redemption becomes possible when the endangered person takes the risk of placing trust in a fellow human being.
Apart from the master pickpocket who recruits him as an accomplice, Michel allows three people into his psychologically isolated life: A somewhat distant friend named Jacques; a police inspector who draws him into discussions about whether "extraordinary" people have a right to override the law; and Jeanne, a woman who grows close to Michel when he returns to Paris after two years as a fugitive abroad. Critics disagree on whether Bresson was a religious filmmaker or a secular one, but he clearly believed that love can be a gateway to salvation. In one of the most moving conclusions to any Bresson film, Michel finally stands in a jail cell, kisses Jeanne's forehead through the bars, and thinks the words we hear in voiceover: "Oh, Jeanne, to reach you at last, what a strange path I had to take." A physical prison opens a path to metaphysical liberation.
Pickpocket has influenced a long list of filmmakers since its release in 1959. None has been more outspoken about this than writer-director Paul Schrader, who analyzed its spiritual dimensions in his 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer and later transposed some of its key ideas into a distinctly American key. Schrader's thriller American Gigolo (1980) is almost a remake in some respects, and his underrated crime drama Light Sleeper (1992) also contains significant traces. Most strikingly, the abrasive 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese from Schrader's screenplay, centers on a compulsive criminal who calls himself "God's angry man" and, like Michel, spends lots of time in his room writing lengthily in his diary.
The austerity of Bresson's style separates Pickpocket from those other films, most conspicuously when Martin La Salle is on screen in the title role. Bresson usually bypassed professional actors in favor of "models" who wouldn't do any "acting" but would just "be themselves" in front of the camera, replacing psychology and theatricality with unadulterated human authenticity. As film critic Roger Ebert wrote in an admiring essay, Bresson doesn't ask his actors to show an emotion; instead he asks them "to show nothing, and depends on his story and images" to supply the appropriate feeling. La Salle does exactly what Bresson requires, and for newcomers to Bresson his deadpan demeanor will take some getting used to. It's well worth the effort, though
I think Bresson's minimalist filmmaking sprang from his dismay about the moral and ethical standards - or lack thereof - in modern society. Instead of using film to mirror the decadence and excess of contemporary life, he chose to strip things down, peeling away all the sights, sounds, words, and gestures that weren't utterly essential to the vision he wanted to express. The result is a spiritually streamlined cinema that's also engrossing and suspenseful. And realistic; when Bresson was making Pickpocket he hired a real-life thief named Kassagi as an adviser. (The owner of a Manhattan movie theater once told me he sometimes spotted shady people in the audience who hoped to pick up tips from the superbly edited sequences of Michel and his cronies in action!) Once you're on Bresson's unique wavelength, the purity and transparency of his methods pay stunning dividends, offering a visual and narrative clarity that has few equals in world cinema. Pickpocket, the most transcendent cops-and-robbers movie ever made, provides a first-rate introduction to his work.
Director: Robert Bresson
Producer: Agnes Delahaie
Screenplay: Robert Bresson
Cinematographer: L.-H. Burel
Film Editing: Raymond Lamy
Art Direction: Pierre Charbonnier
Music: J.B. Lulli
With: Martin La Salle (Michel), Marika Green (Jeanne), Jean Pelegri (The Principal Inspector), Dolly Scal (The Mother), Pierre Leymarie (Jacques), Kassagi (first accomplice), Pierre Etaix (second accomplice), Csar Gattegno (An Inspector)
by David Sterritt