Title: Pickpocket
Color: Black and white
Country: France
Director: Robert Bresson
Release: 1959
Language: French, with English subtitles
Runtime: 75 minutes
Starring: Martin LaSalle as Michel, Marika Green as Jane

Synopsis: Often viewed as Bresson's strongest film, Pickpocket is the story of a masterful Parisian thief, Michel. It is loosely based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, and the true theme of the film, much like that of the novel, is redemption.

The diegesis of the film itself is relatively banal. Michel, a pickpocket in Paris, attracts the attention of police investigators early on for a robbery of a handful of cash from a women's purse. Taken in for questioning, they are forced to let him go on account of no evidence - Michel claims the money is in fact for his mother. Returning to his mother's dimly lit apartment, we find out that his she is dying in bed, and that a neighbor, Jane, is taking care of her. She rebukes Michel for not visiting his mother more as he departs.

Michel visits a bar, where he encounters both a friend who can offer him "employment" and a police investigator, with whom he enters into a philosophical debate about the place of criminals in society. Michel believes that certain men of extreme talent deserve to be above the law - as he inquires when justifiying his attempts to step beyond the confines of morality, "Will we be judged? By what law?''

Michel falls in with a masterful thief who teaches him how to expertly take wallets from coat pockets and watches from wrists without being caught, and Bresson spends nearly fifteen minutes focusing on Michel's practice of the tasks, both in his apartment and on crowded trains. He is caught only once, and his victim demands that he return his wallet. Michel does so expresionlessly, and walks into the corrider of the subway station.

Michel has a conversation with his mother as she lay dying, in which he tells her that he believes he can do nothing but steal - it's the entirety of his life. She is oddly comfortable with his revelation; the peace of the dying is an accepting one. She, like Michel, raises the notion of him being a "superior" sort of individual, even if his superiority bears a immoral quality to it. Like Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov, Michel is a pyschologically tortured anti-hero.

In one of the most memorable scenes, Michel and the group of cutpurses he works with target a crowded bus station, where their work stealing takes on nearly sexual proportions. They reach into pockets of passersby, taking their wallets and then returning them unnoticed; Michel grabs a woman's purse as she shuffles it under her arm, replacing it with a folded newspaper; one man has a wad of bills slipped from his closed billfold as he passes by, and never catches on.

One of the more interesting rumors regarding the film, and this scene is particular, is that Bresson hired a number of real pickpocket's to aid n the filming of this scene - and had to keep replacing them with new advisors as they were arrested.

As Michel exits a train car, he sees the rest of his gang being arrested, and he slips off into the crowd to avoid a similar fate. His narrative overdub, present throughout the film under the pretext of being a reading of a journal written at some later point (we never quite find out where to place it, chronologically) , tells us that he was forced to leave Paris for a time, where he engaged in carnal pleasures and kept out of sight. It's a difficult story to believe - Michel, like many of Bresson's characters, does not "act" emotionally, and it's hard to picture him cavorting about with women and wine.

Upon returning to Paris a year later, Michel seeks out Jane, who had earlier been romantically involved with one of his friends. In her apartment is a child, who we find out is her's; after she became pregnant, Michel's former friend abandoned her. Michel's attraction to Jane becomes apparent, but his profession keeps a distance between them. Jane is the epitome of goodness - a devoutly spiritual girl, thrust into a world of suffering and yet not willing to denounce it.

Michel is, of course, arrested almost immediately after, in a scene strikingly similar to the opening shot of the film: a racetrack. He is incarcerated, and Jane visits him in prison. They embrace through the bars of his cell, and the film ends.


Analysis: It is difficult to write about Bresson's Pickpocket. In many ways, it is a paradoxical film: austere and emotional, simple yet meaningful, constructed but not inaccessible. In discussing Bresson's movie, the critic Susan Sontag acknowledges the tension of its form, which is "designed to discipline...at the same time that it arouses." Although Pickpocket is an adaptation of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, in interviews Bresson has not been willing to discuss the connection. Such a refusal is perhaps a reflection of the nature of the film, however; what is on the screen seems to be only a part of some larger experience that is had in viewing this movie. While the content of that experience begins with the diegesis, it is completed by the subjective experience of the viewer. I believe that Bresson's minimalist style, sparse scene construction, and the emphasis on action rather than on acting in Pickpocket are the sources of the discipline and the forces behind the postponement of easy gratification that Sontag discusses in her essay. Artifice, especially pickpocketing, is the most important part of the film's structure. The manner in which Bresson films Michel's thievery "induces a certain tranquility" in viewers precisely because it avoids comment in both the narrative and the visuals. Rick Thompson, lecturer in Film Studies at Latrobe University, writes that Bresson's "systematic use of ellipsis...cuts off our dependence on the dominance of narrative…."

Let us then turn our attention first to the structure of the movie. The first and last shots in Pickpocket that reveal Michel's thieving are almost identical. P. Adams Sitney, in his essay entitled Cinematography vs. The Cinema: Bresson's Figures, argues that this repetition "highlights the nullity of the film's central development". What is perhaps important about these two scenes is the effect that the repetition of pickpocketing has on the viewer. Pickpocket is not a film fundamentally concerned with character development. As Thompson notes, "the on-screen actions themselves, as done and framed and cut, without comment, explanation, or dialogue, are sufficient for us to understand Michel's experience." In close-up shots of Michel’s face - especially those in the bar, where he discusses his philosophy - there is no betrayal of emotion, and little sense that we are seeing a “performance.” As mentioned previously, Pickpocket is instead a film which is interested in the viewer's subjective experience of it, especially the effect it has on her by means of focusing on the act of stealing. In both of the racetrack scenes, note that the camera is focused tightly on Michel's face. His blank expression does not reveal his emotional state even here, when his emotion should (at least in the normative viewer’s expectations) be running the highest, as he reaches for his mark. In the dichotomy between the image on screen and the overlaid emotional context, however, Bresson establishes a tangible sense of tension. The acts of thievery themselves - Michel's fingers plying into his victims pockets and purses while diverting their attention elsewhere - may be at least partially responsible; his detached demeanor is at odds with the affront of violating the personal space of society, and the viewer is left uncertain as to how she should interpret this split, especially early in the film. I believe that this divide is not an unintentional confusion on Bresson’s part, but rather an example of how he, "disciplines the emotions at the same time that he arouses them." He is not only arousing his viewer's emotions, he is shaping their experience by leaving them uncertain, forcing them outside the passive role of merely observing by making them uncomfortable.

So keen is the sense of tension in the racetrack scenes that both times that Michel attempts the physical act of pickpocketing, he fails. When he thinks he gets away with his crime the first time, his capture undercuts the view we are offered by him: that he is a being somehow above society, a man of "exceptional talents". What we are given by Bresson instead are facets of Michel's self that are in conflict with each other. By calling specific, close, obsessive attention to the depersonalized actions of Michel's hands in these two scenes, Bresson invites the viewer into an awareness of the character’s internal struggle. Unlike in normative film, it is only an invitation - a passive viewer would not be likely to perceive the significance of fingers on a purse. We are drawn into Michel's world by our own means, and as the first shots of his apartment reveal, it is a world of impressionistic shadows and dark spaces, into and out of which Michel seems to fade. In his own words, he claims that he wishes to "master the world", but Bresson is careful to show us that despite the appearances given by the plot, Michel cannot do so, for he is too caught in his own paradox. Bresson has Michel pass into empty spaces, and repeatedly fades or dissolves to a similarly framed shot and has his lead actor enter into it. The effect isolates Michel from not just the characters around him, but even the physical world. It is a subtle effect, but the emotional result it evokes is present even if the viewer does not consciously realize its source.

In discussing the racetrack scenes, Sitney observes that "both times Michel's failure created a possibility for visual stimulus to take on meaning for him." More than important solely to Michel, however, the twice-shown setup at the track asserts to the viewer that Michel exists only in a sort of relative space, and when pushed out of it and into the so-called real world, with its entertainments and noise and police setups, he cannot cope. We, as audience members presumably living in that existence, want to see an affirmation of Michel's inability to escape it, and the clasp of the handcuffs upon Michel's wrists the second time around satisfies that desire. Bresson doesn't provide us with just that image, however; we are in some way invested in Michel by the time he is arrested, and while satisfying in some visceral sense, it does not yet answer to the larger expectation the film engenders in its viewers, the desire to place Michel within a manageable context, both visually and emotionally. We are not truly gratified by either alternative we've been shown: an orgy of thievery and crime, while visually exciting, offers no possibilities for either Michel or his compatriots, or his capture and incarceration which are conceptually (but not visually) anticlimactic.

The redeeming agent in the film is, of course, Jane. Her role as such is largely defined by the fact that she comes to Michel when he is in prison, when his arrogant philosophy is revealed as being unarguably flawed. Sitney points out that, "for Michel the walls of the prison dissolve and only his 'idea' of superiority, and consequently the sense of his inferiority at having blundered, remains visible." Much of the film is concerned with entrapment: the shadow-filled, cluttered apartment that Michel lives in, the effect of fate and existence on man (as Michel says at one point, "I may appear careless, but I'd nothing to fear."), even the reflexive condition of the narrator, writing of his life as if to answer the question Michel poses at the film's end, "Why live?" The gratification that the film is seeking is found in an effort to provide an answer - if Sontag is correct, it is the ultimate "state of spiritual balance" that transcends Michel's own search for meaning. His imprisonment is a result of the act that has been focused on for the majority of the film. It is in prison that there are no shadows or spaces to disappear into, nor any place for Michel's hands to disappear into. Behind the bars of the jail, Michel is without artifice. The discipline of the visuals allow Jane's interactions to be more important than they have been earlier. Michel's internal opposition resolves itself here - the letter from Jane nods to the journal that Michel has been reading from throughout the film, and unifies the voice of Michel. As Sitney points out, it is after this "critical" change that "Michel announces his conversion." The change in question is from Michel-the-thief, Michel-the-nihilist to Michel as a man stripped to his essence. In the final scene of the film, which consists of Michel and Jane, their hands intertwining between the bars of the prison as the camera drifts between the bars, Michel speaks: "Oh, Jane, what a droll path we took to find each other."

The discipline that Pickpocket evokes comes from its resilience to its internal tensions. Visually, there is a confidence in the setup of the empty spaces in this film. Characters do not shy away from the shadows and passageways in Bresson's Paris, they move into and through them, entering and exiting scenes almost out of sight of the viewer. Moreover, by focusing so closely on process, Bresson moves the content of the movie away from performances of actors. Except for the last scene, there is nothing spectacular about the acting in Pickpocket, aside from the fact that it is largely absent. Even when confronted by one of his victims, Michel does not grimace or cower - and so we as viewers are not able to empathize him. The visuals, filled with dark spaces, empty door frames, and looming furniture also deemphasize the immediate personality of the characters - there is anything but a dramatic quality to the figures moving through this space. Finally, the cyclical structure of the film brings about a similar effect - it is only at the end of the film, when Jane's visit to Michel in jail breaks the "repetition" of the film, that the tensions (about Michel, at least) are resolved. What Bresson does not do, however, is explain (either on screen or in later interviews) what the film is about. The weight of watching it - and it is an almost tangible one - is the sole burden of the viewer, and her's alone to wrestle with. It becomes an existential experience - fraught with all the difficulties of an existential crisis. Perhaps "an" is the wrong article to use here; the "existential crisis" is always essentially an individual's interaction with the question, "Why live?" Bresson seems to offer an answer - live not for the world, which is empty and dark, and live not for oneself, for such is at best arrogance, destined to fail, but live rather for love. The temptation to assert that this really is Bresson's response is certainly there, but it isn't his, at least not originally - Dostoyevsky's novel ends with the same message. There is no easy gratification in Pickpocket - the determination of whether Bresson is endorsing Dostoyevsky's answer, criticizing it, or simply presenting it is the crux of the subjective experience of viewing the film.


(Information on the actors' names and year of release taken from www.imdb.com; the analysis was originally written as a reponse piece for a film criticism course at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.)

Pick"pock`et (?), n.

One who steals purses or other articles from pockets.

Bentley.

 

© Webster 1913.

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