"Pickpocket" - Robert Bresson (1959)

Following on from his two masterworks, Diary of a Country Priest (1950) and A Man Escaped (1956), Robert Bresson next made Pickpocket, which combined elements from both of those two earlier films to describe the experiences of a petty criminal. Like Diary of a Country Priest, the story is presented as the visual realisation of a journal account describing the protagonist’s life. And like A Man Escaped, the account focuses intensely on the “confinement” of the main character and his efforts to avoid capture. Thanks largely to Bresson’s bare, minimalist style, critics seem to have imbued the film with extra qualities drawn from their own mindsets and have come up with quite contrasting interpretations. Some see it from a spiritual or moral point of view, others from psychological and even sexual perspectives. There is universal agreement on only one issue, however: this film is not a typical police thriller (but of course the viewer is informed of this in the opening sequence). Many reviewers remark that Pickpocket was inspired or influenced by Dostoyevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment, but I would go further and assert that the film is essentially Bresson’s adaptation of “Crime and Punishment”. Bresson’s fascination with Dostroyevky’s work was further manifested by his subsequent Une Femme Douce (1969) and Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), which were explicitly acknowledged adaptations.

As is characteristic of Bresson films, there is no background information provided for any of the characters, and throughout the film we only see events seen by the protagonist, Michel. And, again, critical dynamic actions take place offscreen and are only referred to. For example, the opening scene, described in Michel’s voice-over, covers his initial pickpocketing effort at a racetrack, but omits his immediately following arrest by the police.

In the next few of scenes, lasting about twenty minutes, we learn that
  1. Michel only occasionally and reluctantly visits his ill and soon-to-die mother, whose attractive young neighbour, Jeanne, looks after her.
  2. Michel’s friend Jacques, who is interested in Jeanne, expresses his worries about Michel’s degenerating lifestyle and tells of him of his willingness to loan him money.
  3. The police inspector suspects that Michel is a pickpocket, but cannot yet prove anything. Michel tells the inspector his theory that superior individuals should be above the law and be permitted to steal.
  4. Michel is befriended by another, more skilled, pickpocket, who shows him some tricks and indicates his willingness to include Michel in his pickpocketing team. Their technique always involves a first person lifting someone’s wallet and immediately passing it to a second person, who then passes it quickly to a third person, who departs the scene.
The ensuing forty minutes depict a series of pickpocketing capers by Michel and his gang, interspersed with encounters variously involving Jacques, Jeanne, and the suspicious police inspector. Eventually, after an extended pickpocketing session at the train station, Michel’s accomplices are arrested by the police, and Jeanne is called in for a police interview. Suspecting that the police are about to arrest him, Michel skips town. We are told in voice-over that he then travelled about Europe performing various acts of thievery, but after two years of this and once again penniless, he returned to Paris. Upon his return he learns Jeanne and Jacques had been lovers and had a child. But Jeanne is now alone with the child, apparently a consequence of her having informed Jacques that she didn’t love him enough to marry him.

Michel vows to help support Jeanne financially and promises to live honestly. But he can’t help succumbing to the old temptation and is soon stung and arrested for attempting to pick the pocket of a police decoy. Jeanne comes to visit Michel in prison, and on her second visit, they merely have to look at each other to recognise finally their deep affinity. They kiss through the bars of the interview window, and in voice-over, Michel says, “Oh, Jeanne, to reach you at last, what a strange path I had to take,” as the film ends.

The comparison with Crime and Punishment merits further discussion, and it is interesting to compare Pickpocket with Josef von Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment. In both stories we have
  • a talented young protagonist who believes that his intelligence and overall superiority entitle him to commit crimes;
  • a mother who dies suspecting that her son is a criminal;
  • a police inspector who spars intellectually with the protagonist and dismisses his “superman” theory about criminal justification;
  • a close male friend who supports the protagonist;
  • a self-sacrificing woman who offers her unconditional love, even knowing that her beloved is a criminal.
  • a final moment of surrender and redemption that is accompanied by a submission to the call of love.
But Bresson’s vision has significant differences from Dostoyevsky's. Raskolnikov committed a single, violent act of murder, but he was not a serial murderer. He committed his crime to serve some ends which he felt justified that act. Michel, by contrast, is a petty criminal who has embraced a meaningless life of crime. Much of Crime and Punishment involves the tightening noose of suspicion and guilt that is relentlessly encircling Raskolnikov. We don’t feel that kind of narrative tension in Pickpocket. Michel's activities are unmotivated, and so is Jeanne’s growing affection for him. We don’t get inside Michel’s head and experience his world in quite the way we do with Raskolnikov. In fact the principal aspect of Michel’s life seems to be its emptiness, which is underscored by Bresson’s mise en scene.

Bresson’s characteristic style is to use unprofessional actors who render “flat” performances and show almost no emotion when they read their lines with downcast glances. He is famous for drilling his actors with repeated readings, until there are no thespian elements to a performance, in fact no performance whatsoever. Conversations in his films often feature unmotivated pauses separating the individual statements. Shots often begin with just a static view of a room or a doorway for several seconds before anyone appears to engage in action. At the end of a shot, the actors often depart from the scene, but the camera shot is still held on a now-empty doorway or environment for several seconds. These pauses take us out of the flow of action and into reflection. Many commentators, including director and film scholar, Paul Schrader, claim there are no close-ups in the film, but this is misleading, if not downright false. In fact there are so many medium close-ups and so few establishing long shots that the film has a confined, claustrophobic feeling, reminiscent of the films of Wong Kar Wai. This provides a further sense of the cramped, suffocating existence of Michel. All these techniques give the filmed events a dreamlike quality, as if all the characters are sleepwalking. When we watch this, we feel, that we, too, are in a dream, and we are unconsciously forced to reflect on its meaning – just as we do with our own dreams. We viewers are the ones who must struggle to assemble the parts and make a meaning out of them.

This assembly of unconnected building blocks is particularly appropriate for the story of Pickpocket, because Michel, himself, is unable to find any meaning out of life. Until he gains some revelation at the end of the film, his empty life is just a bunch of disconnected building blocks. So thematically, the Bresonian style is particularly apt for Michel’s tale. But as a narrative approach, it is not so effective here. Although many Bresson enthusiasts consider Pickpocket to be at the top of his achievements, I do not share this feeling. It is difficult for us to identify with Michel, whereas we do identify somewhat with Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov, at least, believes in his own specialness. Michel doesn’t seem to believe in anything, and the only source of “energy” he can find in existence is the thrill of committing a crime. But showing this kind of apathy on film is usually only enervating for the viewer. It is true that the final emotional moment in Pickpocket is a welcome relief, but it’s only that. It is basically unmotivated and comes as something of a shock. It is certainly not equal to the brilliant culmination that provides both exhilaration and closure in A Man Escaped.

No comments: