Pickpocket (1959)

"The style of this film is not that of a thriller. Using image and sound, the filmmaker strives to express the nightmare of a young man whose weaknesses lead him to commit acts of theft for which nothing destined him."

I find these opening credits a curious irony because Robert Bresson's Pickpocket 'is' a thriller; just not the standard thriller most people are used to experiencing. The main protagonist is named Michel; a man whose looks are very ordinary and plain; is neither handsome nor ugly; and has the perfect demeanour to blend into the background, and disappear within a crowd unnoticed. Michel is a professional pickpocket and thief, a character who leaves a completely isolated life; emotionally detached from others and of the outside world. Pickpocket is considered a contemporary version of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment as film critic Roger Ebert states, "Bresson's Michel, like Dostoyevsky's hero Raskolnikov, needs money in order to realize his dreams, and sees no reason why some lackluster ordinary person should not be forced to supply it. The reasoning is immoral, but the characters claim special privileges above and beyond common morality." Robert Bresson is considered one of the great masters in the art form of the cinema and most of his films center around such spiritual themes which include salvation, sin, redemption, morality and the defining and revealing of the human soul. Michel's character in Pickpocket seems to gets a sort of erotic gratification and psycho-sexual release when stealing from others: To stand extremely close to his victims; to feel their light breathing and subtle body movements and reactions. When the moment is just right, he goes in using his quickness and stealth, and takes what he can from them. It's no coincidence that when another pickpocket catches Michel in the act, it is in a men's room where their liaison involves money as a substitute for sex.

Pickpocket became a huge influence to the writer and director Paul Schrader; who has described Pickpocket as "close to perfect as there can be", and whose screenplay for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver bears many similarities, including a confessional narration and a voyeuristic look at society, obsession and isolation. Pickpocketing becomes a form of addiction for Michel, similar to a drug addict or alcoholic, he surrenders his temptations and compulsions to steal, as it slowly consumes and takes over him. In one of the most memorable scenes of the film you watch Michel and two other thieves work together on a crowded train. The camera shots use close-ups of hands, wallets, pockets and faces in a beautifully timed montage of images that explain how pickpockets work. How one distracts the person, then the second quickly takes the wallet or purse and passes it to the third, who suddenly moves away. The three men work the train back and forth, at one point even smoothly returning a victim's empty wallet to his pocket. Their work has the timing, grace and precision of a ballet, and is one of the most extraordinary and poignant moments in the cinema.

 

PLOT/NOTES

"The style of this film is not that of a thriller. Using image and sound, the filmmaker strives to express the nightmare of a young man whose weaknesses lead him to commit acts of theft for which nothing destined him. However, this adventure and the strange paths it takes, brings together two souls that may otherwise never have met."

The opening shot of the film shows a man writing a letter: "I know those who've done these things usually keep quiet, and those who talk haven't done them. Yet I have done them."

The first scene starts off at a dog track; as you see Michel squeezed in a tight crowd of people. Michel usually wears a suit and a tie and his expression is very blank showing no emotion; like most of Bresson's characters. You then see him slowly undo the latch on a woman's purse standing closely behind her and quickly and swiftly taking out the cash. Of course right after Michel pickpockets the lady while walking out he is being followed by authorities; which when arrested is interestingly shown off-screen.

The inspector eventually releases Michel because the evidence is not strong enough; while Michel says "it's not a crime to have cash."

Visiting his mother, Michel meets Jeanne a neighbor and caretaker of his mothers who begs him to visit his mother more often. He hasn't seen his mother in over a month. Jeanne opens the door for him; but he decides not to go in. "It's you she needs" Jeanne tells him. He gives her cash to give to his mother and coldly tells her goodbye.

He later meets up with his friend Jacques who will offer him names and addresses of future job prospects. When out together they meet up with a police inspector. The police inspector is suspicious of Michel and is questioning and suspecting him of being a thief. Michel tells him his theory on theft:

"Can we not admit that certain skilled men, gifted with intelligence, talent or even genius, and thus indispensable to society, rather than stagnate should be free to disobey laws in certain cases?"

"That could be difficult. And dangerous."

"Society could only gain from it."

"Who will identify these supermen?"

"They themselves. Their conscience."

"You know any men who doesn't think he's exceptional?"

"Don't worry. It would only be at first. Then they'd stop."

"They don't stop...believe me."

Later on a train Michel watches a master pickpocket at work and later practices the moves the man was doing at his apartment. Over the next few nights Michel takes different train routes to pick pocket people but he even admits most of was he got was poor and not worth the risk.

While getting off a train one evening a man confronts him saying to give back his wallet or he will call the police. He starts making a scene so Michel gives him his wallet back and quickly walks away.

Jacques goes on a date with Jeanne the woman who watches Michel's sick mother and invites Michel along. Michel decides to stay in for a few days to be cautious after that one incident of getting caught and one night starts becoming paranoid while seeing someone who is outside looking at his apartment.

Suddenly Jeanne and Jacques comes to his door telling him his mother is very ill but Michel tells her and Jacques to check on his mother; because he is busy. Jacques says, "selfish man, you say you love your mother?" Michel says, "more than myself."

Once they leave Michel walks outside and confronts the man who was walking back and forth outside of his apartment. He follows the stranger to a restaurant and he realizes the man is a professional thief and wants him to join him. "Fifteen minutes later we were friends, " he says.

In one of the best scenes of the film though a montage of quick cuts and music the stranger shows Michel all the tricks of the trade when it comes to pickpocketing.

One night arriving home Michel walks over a note tucked under his door not realizing it until the early morning. It reads: "Come quickly, Jeanne." He goes to see his mother on her deathbed as the two have their last final moments together. The next scene is Mitchel and Jeanne at a church mourning over his mother's death.

Other the next few days Jeanne helps him get her stuff moved out of her home and Michel asks her, "Jeanne, do you think we'll be judged?" She asks "Judged how? According to laws." He then says, "What laws? It's absurd." She then asks if he believes in nothing. Michel says, "I believed in God, Jeanne...for three minutes."

Over time there's a third in Michel's pick pocketing group; where he doesn't know his name and he doesn't know his. One day Michel arrives home and finds Jacques at his place reading one of his books called 'The Prince of Pickpockets.' by George Barrington. Jacques says, "thieves disgust me. They're idlers. To trick rich people into being his friends. He stole from friends. You think that's right?" Jacques asks if he can take the book with him as they go out.

They later run into the inspector who looks at the book Jacques has and asks Michel if he can one day bring it by and read it. After he leaves Michel says to Jacques that the inspector thinks he's guilty of bring a criminal and Michel also believes Jacques does as well; which Jacques denying it.

That very next day Michel goes down to the station with the George Barrington book. Once there, the inspector barely glances at the book and seems not to care and when Michel goes back to his apartment he realizes that the inspector had him come by because it was all just a ruse to search his apartment while he was gone. Luckily the inspector's men didn't find his stashed money hidden in the apartment and that evening Michel, Jacques and Jeanne all have dinner outside together.

Jeanne says to him "you're not in the real world. You share no interest with others." For a brief while Jeanne and Jacques leave the table and you see Michel eyeing a man with a watch and the camera stays static as Michel follows his compulsion and gets up from the table.

A dissolve occurs with Jacques and Jeanne returning back to the empty table. The next scene is Michel with ripped jeans and a bloody cut on his hand back at his apartment. Jacques stops by because he was worried when Michel just disappeared from the restaurant. After knowing Michel is now home safe Jacques leaves. Michel finally takes out the watch in which he went after earlier and achieved; which great satisfies him.

In one of the most memorable scenes of the film you watch Michel and the other two thieves work together on a crowded train. The camera shots use closeups of hands, wallets, pockets and faces in a beautifully timed montage of images that explain how pickpockets work. How one distracts the person, then the second quickly takes the wallet or purse and passes it to the third, who suddenly moves away. What I noticed when watching this extraordinary scene is the man who takes the money never holds onto it; but quickly passes it over to another. The three men work the train back and forth, at one point even smoothly returning a victim's empty wallet to his pocket. Their work has the timing, grace and precision of a ballet, as it is one of the most extraordinary poignant moments in the cinema.

Days later Michel sees his accessory's being taken away by the inspector and when returning home the inspector later comes by Michel's apartment. Michel getting tired of these cat and mouse games and tells him if he wants to arrest him then to just arrest him. Suddenly the inspector tells him that he was told years ago that Jeanne reported Michel stole money from his mother but she quickly withdrew the complaint because his mother didn't want her to go through with it. Angry with these accusations Michel later confronts Jeanne to confirm if that was true. When she says it is; Michel realizes his mother knew what he does for a living, and now so does Jeanne. He tells her, "You see me living without any income...and you can't guess?" She cries and hugs Michel when realizing the truth and Michel quickly decides to flee the country so he can avoid arrest.

He leaves and travels to Milan, Rome and England before returning two years later to Paris. When Michel arrives back at his apartment he finds Jeanne there and now has a child with Jacques, in which he abandoned her after she didn't agree to marry him because she didn't truly love him. Michel wants to help Jeanne support her child and decides to start living a clean life by getting a job. His first payment he gets from his new job he gives to Jeanne trying to show he is now crime free and is a changed man.

Michel chooses to go clean and support Jeanne and her baby. Unfortunately his compultions to want to steal tempt Michel once again while leaving the races. While in the subway, all signs point to it being a police decoy and a set-up and yet Michel still takes the bait and reaches for a man's wallet. The man Michel tries to pickpocket is a police decoy and Michel's hands lead him into a pair of handcuffs. Michel is finally put behind bars, and one day he gets a visit from Jeanne. Jeanne becomes his form of redemption for Michel and all the sins he has committed.

Michel and Jeanne are together again and the two embrace one other through the bars. Michel says to Jeanne, "These bars, these walls, I don't even see them." But he does see them and he is healed by the touch of her hand through the bars. And then comes Michel's last words, "Oh, Jeanne, to reach you at last...what a strange path I had to take."

 

ANALYZE

Robert Bresson's Pickpocket is considered a contemporary version of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Film critic Roger Ebert says, "Bresson's Michel, like Dostoyevsky's hero Raskolnikov, needs money in order to realize his dreams, and sees no reason why some lackluster ordinary person should not be forced to supply it. The reasoning is immoral, but the characters claim special privileges above and beyond common morality. Michel, like the hero of Crime and Punishment, has a 'good woman' in his life, who trusts he will be able to redeem himself. ... She comes to Michel with the news that his mother is dying. Michel does not want to see his mother, but gives Jeanne money for her. Why does he avoid her? Bresson never supplies motives. We can only guess."

Robert Bresson is considered one of the great masters in the art form of the cinema and most of his films center around such spiritual themes which include salvation, sin, redemption, and the defining and revealing of the human soul. Even though Robert Bresson was raised in a strict Catholic upbringing he eventually became an Agnostic and focused his Catholic teachings within the framework of several of his films. In his book, Sculpting in Time, legendary director Andrei Tarkovsky describes Bresson as "perhaps the only artist in cinema, who achieved the perfect fusion of the finished work with a concept theoretically formulated beforehand."

Diary of a Country Priest tells the story of a young sick priest who judged others and knew others judged him, and it focused on the cruelty of the townspeople, and how they all set out together to destroy his faith. Mouchette is about a young girl who was an outcast and a victim of rape in her small village. His greatest masterpiece Au Hasard Balthazar is about the sufferings of a donkey and a young farmers daughter; portraying a tragic and bleak world of human suffering. A Man Escaped tells the story of an imprisoned activist who plans his escape from the Nazi's, and his last masterpiece L'argent portrays a woman wreaking vengeance and greed on a potential lover she never wanted in the first place. A lot of critics compared the work of Bresson to that of Carl Theodor Dreyer, Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman, and of his bleak spiritual outlook on life.

Robert Bresson is famous for repeating the same scene on an actor 50 times or so until it stripped all emotion away from their acting. Bresson created the 'actor- model' technique and wanted nothing but physical movement in the character's with no emotion whatsoever. When we see Michel's face throughout this film it is emotionless and blank; and what he is feeling or thinking is left ambiguous, as we as an audience have to supply these thoughts and emotions for ourselves. Michel is somewhat of an enigma; and yet we know if he wanted to get a real job and work, he would. His relationship with his mother and why he decides not to visit her remains a mystery. He sits alone in his small empty apartment reading his books, and in some ways his character reminds me of Alain Delon's lonely and tragic character in Le Samourai.

Michel is a man so emotionally detached from the outside world and yet believes he's special enough (in what he calls his so-called 'supermen' as he tells the inspector) to abide by his own moral code, as he selfishly steals from others. It seems he gets a sort of erotic power and gratification in what he does. To stand right up close to his victims; to feel their breathing and their subtle body movements and reactions. And when the moment is right he opens their coats or purses and steals what he can from them. This to me seems very sexual in tone; like a sort of sexual release after being triumph over a lesser type of person. Maybe many thieves and shoplifters get this kind of adrenaline rush when they use their quickness and stealth to take from others what they know does not belong to them.

I noticed when watching Pickpocket that stealing gives off a sort of psycho-sexual like gratification to the character of Michel. It becomes some sort of addiction to his life similar to Michael Fassbender's character in the newly acclaimed Shame; in which he was also a loner; and a man who portrayed no emotions to others. Critic Roger It's really no coincidence that when another pickpocket catches Michel in the act, they confront one another in a men's room; their liaison involves money as a substitute for sex. For Michel, it becomes more of an addiction to steal then to steal to survive. Even while he's out with friends and he looks over at a man's watch his temptations eventually consume him to sacrifice the night out with his friends just to surrender his obsessive compulsions to steal; just so he can feel triumph and satisfy his desires.

Near the end of the film after Michel tries to go clean and support Jeanne and her baby. He seems to treat his compulsions to steal as a form of addiction, similar to a drug addict, an alcoholic or a sex addict. And like most addicts he succumbs to his lusts and desires, with this addiction ultimately taking over and consuming his whole life. That moment in the climax of the film, all signs point to it being a police decoy and a set-up and yet Michel still takes the bait. It's as if he in some ways wants to get caught and end this inner misery and suffering. When the police decoy shows Michel money he supposedly won on a race; Michel knows that he didn't even bet on the winning horse. And yet he still takes the risk and tries to pickpocket him which leads his hand into a pair of handcuffs; which is what I believe Michel secretly wished for. While Michel's in a jail cell Jeanne comes to see him, and she becomes his redemption for the sins he has committed. Pickpocket is a simple story about a man who tries to work outside morality because he believes he is above the law and and in some ways he seeks punishment because he knows the sins he commits deserve to get punished. At the end of the film he finally is able to express some form of emotional connection with another person which a spiritual breakthrough for his character. For a film that clocks only at 75 minutes; Pickpocket is much richer and fascinating than most films double its film length. When seeing Jeanette again he says to her, "These bars, these walls, I don't even see them." But he does see them and he is healed by the touch of her hand through the bars. A lot of the film has him narrating what he writes down in his journal and only certain parts of it involve music. Most films would add the music into the scenes where it is most thrilling and suspenseful. Instead Bresson doesn't feel the need to use music in any of those suspenseful sequences, which gives those scenes a higher amount of tension and a strange hypnotic power. The climax of the film is where Bresson uses the music to his fullest, when Michel and Jeanne are together again embracing one other at last. And then comes Michel's last narration by saying, "Oh, Jeanne, to reach you at last...what a strange path I had to take..."

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