Director Robert Bresson approaches his subject matter like a true gangster, straight on. A rare treat, Pickpocket presents an almost documentary approach to pickpocketing strategies while also providing a Dostoyevsky-type of approach to morality. There are poetic cinematic experiences where we get out of them mostly what we bring into them. Pickpocket is this type of film, a story where motives are not always clear.
- Director: Robert Bresson
- Writer: Robert Bresson
- Cast: Martin LaSalle, Marika Green
Michel (Martin LaSalle) is a poor young man living in Paris. After making the decision to become a pickpocket, his first attempt is met with failure. But despite being caught, he manages to emerge from this incident unscathed due to lack of evidence. And so begins Michel’s leap into a lifestyle of theft, a path soon blown open by the teachings of other professional pickpockets. But what is his ultimate objective? Is it merely to survive? With Bresson answers don’t come so easily. And what will become of his relationship with Jeanne (Marika Green)?
Eight years after being catapulted into the consciousness of international film audiences with his Diary of a Country Priest, Robert Bresson provided us with another meditative experience. Pickpocket is mature visual storytelling. The film barely relies on dialogue or voice-over to advance its intentions, although similar to the title character in Diary, Michel’s journal entries provide an added layer of narrative. But what are its intentions? Bresson meticulously frames his images with minimalism, an austere approach providing only just enough information to advance the story, but never enough so as to dispel all ambiguities. Green’s presence is great, providing a presence that feels artfully complex. The open-ended nature of the story lends much to this highly introspective character study.
As had become somewhat of a trademark for Bresson, Pickpocket employs only non-professional actors. LaSalle and Marika Green play their characters by effectively stripping down almost any semblance of emotion, leaving Bresson free to focus on technical precision. Bresson’s directing abilities are masterful. Notice the way he shoots crowd scenes in which dozens of small movements must be captured in order make them convincing. The attention to eye lines and the use of appropriate lenses to frame each shot serve as testament to Bresson’s cinematic fluency. By demonstrating economical shot selection, Pickpocket is a fiercely focused film. We never meander or go on tangents. Emotional states feel neglected, but when they surface they feel earned.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
While I enjoy the masterful directing of Bresson, I seem to be left wanting more emotional weight. As I’ve previously thought about Bresson, while I admire his work, part of his appeal seems to never completely escape justifications of a more theoretical and scholarly nature. Nevertheless, I enjoy watching a lone man wandering through life while mostly operating alone. I find this type of character is fascinating. Think Taxi Driver, Collateral and Drive. These are all intriguing films, and as Paul Schrader has often discussed, the work of Robert Bresson has been quite influential in these types of stories. Ebert’s admiration for Bresson’s work is a joy to read, reminding us that he was truly one of the “most thoughtful and philosophical of directors”. Ebert’s literary analysis also offers great insight into Michel’s character, pointing out that “like many criminals, he commits theft for two conflicting reasons: because he thinks he is better than others, and because–fearing he is worse–he seeks punishment.” Additionally, Ebert is absolutely correct in describing the pickpocketing scenes among crowds as having the “timing, grace and precision of a ballet.”
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GOOD
Do you like Pickpocket? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: The Sweet Smell of Success
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, a monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 363 films (more if you count the trilogies, the Up docs and Decalogue). Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket this week, he now has 347 under his belt and less than 20 films left to go.