Robert Bresson’s is one of the great singular visions of the cinema. Like Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky, Bresson’s output was relatively minimal — 13 features over the course of 40 years — but it is likewise instantly recognizable. Though it’s something of an auteurist cliché to say that one can identify a given director’s work by just a single scene or even a single frame, in this case, the declaration holds true. Bresson’s work is so distinct, so deceptively simple, so regimented in its formal construction, that to see one of his films is to witness an exceptional directorial style, one consistently employed throughout an artist’s body of work. With this consistency comes the subsequent creation of one extraordinary film after another, each similar to the previous, with reoccurring imagery, themes, and performances, but each, at the same time, notably unique. Bresson directed several films that could be considered his greatest, and while Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) puts up the strongest fight, a good case could be made for Pickpocket, from 1959, as the inimitable filmmaker’s finest achievement.
Though there are others in the film, Michel (Martin LaSalle) is the titular thief of concern. Michel is, in James Quandt’s words, a “walking semiotic system of alienation.” LaSalle’s blank slate of a face allows the audience to project any number of emotions and thoughts onto this young man, but such associative engagement is sheer speculation, for rarely are we afforded any overt suggestion of true feeling. His self-imposed isolationism keeps him at a distance from society, for which he seems to care little, and from family and friends. Jeanne (Marika Green), his teenage neighbor who cares for his ailing mother (Michel would rather give his mother a wad of cash than visit with her), and Jacques (Pierre Leymarie), his sole friend, offer a way out from the solitary existence, a path of intimacy and amity, but Michel greets this closeness with trepidation. Though the three do socialize on occasion, Michel’s public presence is awkward to say the least.
Adding to his social discomfort is his disconcerting worldview, his take of what is right or wrong and his questioning of morality and appropriate justice. With Jacques and the police officer who is suspiciously on his trail at all times, Michel daringly lays out his philosophical stance when it comes to the justification of certain crimes if committed by gifted men, men better than others, men above the law, “supermen” operating autonomously from societal structures. Such a duel (dis)regard for certain people and not others is manifest in Michel’s visually evident and even stated appreciation for his chosen craft and those craftsmen who so expertly execute the crime. (Real-life pickpocket Kassagi appears in the film and acted as a technical advisor for the production, lending the criminal methodology shown considerable authenticity.) The ambiguous awe with which Michel sometimes examines the other pickpockets gives credence to some of the psychosexual readings that have been assigned to the film; they’re perhaps not what first comes to mind watching the movie, but once the suggestion has been made, as Quandt does make, it’s hard to shake the theory.
Michel meticulously practices his thieving routine, and once successfully put into action, the anxiety gives way to euphoria; watching Michel enact his felonies is truly a sensual experience. The same goes for when we see Michel and his fellow pickpockets stage elaborately designed joint thefts. The bravura sequence at the train station is a wonderfully shot and arranged display of intricate collaboration. Such careful commitment to a crime is, it must be admitted, rather admirable and impressive. But of course, that doesn’t make it right, and on the flip side of this is the omnipresent potential for apprehension. The police are also competent figures in Pickpocket. There are officers doing their own work, and frequently succeeding. What emerges is a sort of professional tête-à-tête of contrasting and competing occupational proficiency.
Known for his austere and stripped down treatment of imagery, Bresson here reveals a notable stylishness, with a smoothly flowing camera and outstanding montage sequences — Pickpocket is also perhaps less rigorous due to its rapid pace and its condensed runtime (about 75 minutes). While it is a brisk film, Bresson nevertheless allows for certain formal features more synonymous with his cinema: extreme, perfectly composed close-ups of small details and abstract body parts; lingering shots of halls and doorways, transitional places maintained in the frame before or after a character has moved through them; and the integration of a complex soundtrack as a way to establish and enlarge off-screen space. Paul Schrader, in his introduction to the film that accompanies the recently released Criterion Collection Blu-ray, discusses these and other unique Bresson approaches to filmic guidelines. His decisions when it comes to editing tempo, genre convention, shot size, and pacing are most unusual, and yet are highly effective in terms of narrative progression and the general impression of the film. This impression, as Quandt mentions in his commentary, is one marked by the “everyday transfigured by Bresson’s strange attentiveness.”
Schrader, who calls Pickpocket the most influential film on his own career (with allusions most clearly in Taxi Driver and American Gigolo), considers Michel as a soul floating around. Much of this detached sense is a result of Bresson’s use of actors (or, as he would sometime refer to them, “interpreters” or “models”). Like automatons that have not yet developed an emotive aptitude, the performers here and in other Bresson films are in a perpetual state of lethargic restraint and sobriety, only occasionally countered by outbursts of passion. Bresson cast “non-actors who non-act,” as Schrader puts it, but interestingly, given the director’s penchant when it comes to performances, their impact operating in this unorthodox style is always a lasting one.
It is stated at the film’s opening that this will not be a thriller, and with regards to that designation’s standard definition, this is obviously true. But Pickpocket is thrilling. Though we are oftentimes left to infer as much as we are actually shown, this omission of various elements is more captivating than it is distancing. And despite the intentionally stilted performances, we are genuinely concerned about these people and wonder how they will ultimately turn out. When it’s revealed that the morally superior Jacques is not all he seemed to be, the suggestion that perhaps Michel can also change gives the film a previously lacking optimism. His respite from crime may be short-lived, but there is still by film’s end a glimmer of hope. It was a “strange path” Michel traveled, but the destination appears to have been worth the trip. “Appears to” being the key here, for rarely in the film are motivations and outcomes made unequivocal, which was always part of Bresson’s intent. As he puts it, “I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it.”