Sunday Editor’s Pick: Pickpocket (1959)

by on April 11, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun April 15 at 2:00, 4:30, 6:50, 9:15 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]


BAM keeps unfurling masterpieces in their Bresson retrospective, thru May 6.


Of her courtship with Jacques Demy, Agnès Varda tells Gerald Peary:

When I met Jacquot [Jacques Demy] in 1957, he’d seen Bresson’s Pickpocket three times. We went to see it four more times.”


A.O. Scott for the New York Times:

Bresson’s parable of crime and redemption is timeless, achieving a state of spiritual grace rarely seen, or even contemplated, in the secular medium of cinema.


Andrew O’Hehir for Salon:

Both an ingeniously choreographed crime film and a moral drama influenced by Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” “Pickpocket” marks the apotheosis of Bresson’s stripped-down style. There’s little or no psychological realism or conventional drama at work in Martin La Salle’s portrayal of a master thief who plies his trade at the Gare de Lyon and easily outwits the cops who seek to ensnare him. See it once to appreciate the spare elegance of the pickpocketing scenes, and then a second time to appreciate how subtly Bresson accomplishes the story of a man’s self-willed corruption, his liberation through imprisonment and his redemption through love, all in less than 80 minutes.


Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

Robert Bresson made this short electrifying study in 1959; it’s one of his greatest and purest films, full of hushed transgression and sudden grace. A petty thief (Martin Lasalle) becomes addicted to the art and thrill of picking pockets. He loses his friends and fiancee, and begins to live like a monk, concentrating his entire being on his obsessional, increasingly devotional acts of theft. If the film seems familiar, that’s because Paul Schrader recycled great chunks of it in his scripts for Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, and Raging Bull. But the original retains its awesome, austere power.


J. Hoberman for The Village Voice:

Pickpocket was inspired by Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but all incidental anecdote and psychology has been stripped away. Employing few establishing shots and little camera movement, Bresson distills narrative down to a particular essence of looks, gestures, and precisely placed audio effects. (“The noises must become music,” he wrote in his notebooks.) His mise-en-scéne is as understated as his montage is aggressive—creating performances out of reaction shots, using sound to signify offscreen events. Bresson refers to this method as cinematography, opposing it to “the terrible habit of theater.”
Indeed, Pickpocket might be described as a solemn carnival of souls. There’s something almost medieval about it. The city is inhabited by angels—fallen and otherwise. In the movie’s most elaborate scene, the antihero and his cohorts create an assembly line of theft at the Gare de Lyon. These unstoppable blank-faced thieves descend like a plague upon the world. Ultimately inexplicable, this concentrated, elliptical, economical movie is an experience that never loses its strangeness.



David Denby for The New Yorker:

The basic plot of Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket,” from 1959, is derived from that of “Crime and Punishment”: an isolated and severe young man (Martin LaSalle) becomes a philosophical criminal who asserts his sense of superiority in larcenous acts while also longing to be caught. The difference is that Dostoyevsky is emotionally overwrought, voluble, and psychological, whereas Bresson is cool, distant, and anti-psychological—he reports on actions rather than revealing their motivation. “Pickpocket” is stripped bare, offering much movement but little acting in the normal sense. Bresson required his performers (who were nonprofessionals) to speak their lines blankly, without inflection. The result, for the audience, is that our responses bypass the usual affective mechanics of identification and empathy, settling instead on the contemplation of a soul in isolation. Bresson choreographs the complex techniques of lifting wallets and watches with such precision that one seems to be watching a kind of surreptitious ballet.


TIFF Cinematheque summarizes the glowing opinion of several filmmakers:

Voted the greatest postwar French film by Cahiers du cinéma and cited as one of the four “germinal films of the modern cinema”by René Prédal, Pickpocket has exerted an immense and enduring influence on directors as disparate as Martin Scorsese, Chantal Akerman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Aki Kaurismäki, Louis Malle (who called it “one of the four or five great dates in the history of cinema”), and Paul Schrader (who called it “an unmitigated masterpiece” and lifted its ending at least twice in his own films). Bresson’s terse, intense portrait of a compulsive pickpocket (Martin LaSalle) who believes himself above the moral constraints of common humanity turns the act of thievery into a ritual at once erotic and aesthetic. The “ballets of thievery,” as Cocteau called them, are stunningly choreographed and edited. “A film of dazzling originality. On its first viewing, it risks burning your eyes. So, do like me: go back to see it every day. . . . If you deny this film, it is cinema itself as an autonomous art that you call into question” (Malle).



Chris Auty for Time Out (London):

Released in the same year as Godard’s ‘Breathless’ (1959) and filmed on the same sun-dappled Parisian streets, Bresson’s mid-career tale of the mysterious operation of grace and redemption on the fate of a young thief is considered by many to be his masterpiece. Newcomers to Bresson’s films may be surprised to hear that this is perhaps his most optimistic, open, sensuous and sexually charged film, given its dark Dostoyevskian subject matter. Even for those used to Kiarostami’s minimalism, this is a further step into essentialism. Bresson’s actors – ‘models’ – are non-professional and strictly coached; but there is no mistaking the orgasmic pleasure that sweeps the face of indolent, penurious student Michel (Martin LaSalle) as he succeeds on his first ‘dip’ at Longchamps racecourse; nor his despair as his world begins to fall apart. Bresson’s goals were deep; to sweep away the dross of expectation and viewing conventions by means of a purified cinema. At times in this thief’s journal – the extended train station robbery sequence, for instance – his visual discourse touches the sublime.

Ed Gonzalez for Slant:

Godard famously said Au Hasard Balthazar was “life in 90 minutes”; for me, though, Pickpocket was “my life in 75 minutes.” It was my life to live but one I didn’t necessarily want to—except I knew no other.
Bresson profoundly understood this kind of torture, confusion, and crippling sense of spiritual and emotional emptiness, and every image in Pickpocket evokes the director’s idea of the soul in transition. This is why Michel is always passing through doors and ascending and descending stairways: Like the characters in the director’s equally fine L’Argent, Michel is a slave to his material world, and he spends his time looking for a passage into a realm that promises more meaningful, less transitory, rewards. But Bresson connects us to Michel’s plight sexually as well as spiritually. Make no mistake: there’s a psychosexual urgency to the film’s thieving scenes that is perverse and thrilling. This is not an insult to Bresson, who understands that Michel steals in the same way a person does drugs (in Jeanne, he not only finds a healthy, albeit specious form of spiritual salvation but an inhibitor for his reckless self-abuse). Though he pickpockets in order fill a spiritual void, to pretend that he doesn’t derive some kind of pleasure, however fleeting, from stealing is to misunderstand the way we cheat and compromise our deepest and most meaningful desires.



Walter Chaw for Film Freak Central:

Bresson’s Pickpocket is less an austere film than it is a film about austerity–an existential, transcendental exercise (and a literary–and literate–one, too) dependent on physical actions as opposed to emotional cues or narrative arcs. As you watch it, you begin to realize how programmed you’ve been by the grammar of visual narratives: Bresson has so stripped away the flesh from his picture that at the moment of its greatest generosity, that sense of being overcome arises from the realization that along the way, you’ve become very much the instrument of the film’s sense. I’m not suggesting that the picture is surreal (or even Brechtian), but that it has the flavour of Camus or, indeed, Dostoevsky in the requirement that the audience provide the soul and conscience of the piece, along with a good deal of the action. It should be clarified, though, that while Pickpocket is far from a cold film, in the titular cutpurse Michel’s (Martin La Salle, a sort of Anthony Perkins/Montgomery Clift hybrid) affectedly impassive search for connection, there is an extraordinary negative space reserved for the contemplation of the floridity of emotion and desperation. In its loneliness and struggle, Pickpocket (like every Bresson film) is essentially humane; in this Freudian noir performed by clockwork phantoms, there is an unbearable intimacy in the mute coming-together of eyes over a forbidden rendezvous (Michel fingering a purse, or caressing a man’s chest in the act of taking his wallet) that, more often than not, seems an act of mutual transgression.

Andrew Sarris, also for The Village Voice:

Bresson once remarked that he had always been intrigued by hands, because they expressed better than anything else the full range of mans character, achivements, and potentialities. Consequently, the very subject of the pickpocket takes on a metaphorical significance for Bresson.
Where Bresson cannot be faulted is in his technique. The famous pocket-picking ballet, which erupts in a drowsy railroad station, and which evokes a nominally hidden universe of grace and dexterity, is one of the most sublimely realized technical exercises in the history of the cinema. Even if one cannot accept Bresson’s vision of life, the technical expression of this vision deserves the attention of every serious moviegoer. “Pickpocket” is a great film even for non-believers.



John Semley for The Onion AV Club:

Like the cleric in County Priest, Michel’s inner life is revealed largely through his own journals, related to the audience via voiceover. Cinema is a “show don’t tell” medium, but Bresson again prefers the tell, upturning expectations by eliding what would seem to be several of the film’s critical scenes: Michel’s initial arrest at the track (and the horse races themselves), the death of his mother, and closer to the end, a globe-trotting montage of petty thievery, which seems to suggest a whole other movie that we are not seeing.

The film’s genius is that these scenes are not at all critical. Bresson even opens Pickpocket with a disclaimer warning audiences that it will not unfold in the style of classic crime caper, or policier. In knocking out the load-bearing plot elements from his narrative framework, Bresson is able to develop his own cinematic scaffolding, one that’s not beholden to theater or literature. Bresson wanted to explore how cinema could function as cinema, not filmed books or plays. Classical patterns of framing, editing, and even acting worked to obscure cinema, to create an “invisible” style that was no style at all. Bresson’s films upend the apple cart of invisibility. Before the harried editing rhythms of Godard’s Breathless (released a year later) would fashionably rejig the grammar of motion pictures, Pickpocket seems to advocate for a whole other way of making movies.



Paul Schrader elaborates on his love for the film, to Sight & Sound:

My view of him is very theoretical but also very personal. I saw Pickpocket in 1969 when I was reviewing it for the LA free press: I was so knocked out that I reviewed it two weeks running. And what I saw, beyond what I wrote about, was the kind of film I could make.
I’d come from a very illogically driven religious background, a seminary, and then I’d fallen into the Los Angeles counterculture of 1968. I thought there was no middle ground – that where I came from and where I’d arrived were irrevocably separate. Yet when I watched this film, which was part of European art cinema but also from the world I’d come from, I realised those two worlds were not so far apart. I saw a meditation about a man and his room, about solitude and spirituality, and I recognised that there was a meeting place between past and present. I also realised that there might be a place for me in film-making: I’d thought I was a critic and that was where I belonged; I thought I couldn’t make a film about a man and his room.
Three years later I wrote Taxi Driver, which is that film with a lot of anger in it. It’s not meditative or transcendental, but it came from Pickpocket. So from one Bresson film came my book Transcendental Style in Film – Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer – and Taxi Driver itself, which arose from the incentive and justification to create that Pickpocket gave me

You can read Schrader’s original Los Angeles Free Press reviews: Part 1 | Part 2


Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

One of the early images in Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket” (1959) shows the unfocused eyes of a man obsessed by excitement and fear. The man’s name is Michel. He lives in Paris in a small room under the eaves, a garret almost filled by his cot and his books. He is about to commit a crime. He wants to steal another man’s wallet, and he wants his face to appear blank, casual. Perhaps it would, to a casual observer. But we know him and what he is about to do, and in his eyes we see the trancelike ecstasy of a man who is surrendering to his compulsion.
Or do we? Bresson, one of the most thoughtful and philosophical of directors, was fearful of “performances” by his actors. He famously forced the star of “A Man Escaped” (1956) to repeat the same scene some 50 times, until it was stripped of all emotion and inflection. All Bresson wanted was physical movement. No emotion, no style, no striving for effect. What we see in the pickpocket’s face is what we bring to it. Instead of asking his actors to “show fear,” Bresson asks them to show nothing, and depends on his story and images to supply the fear.


Raymond Durgnat for Film Comment’s 1999 Bresson symposium:

Pickpocket, like Citizen Kane, upfronts the unknowability of soul and destiny. Kane is spectacular, theatrical, noisily virtuoso; it’s a “maximalist” movie. Pickpocket is spare, frugal, elliptical; “cine-minimalist.” Kane heavily proclaims its “inner story” (Rosebud-into-Kane), but doesn’t tell it (or tells it only as “dollar-book Freud,” i.e., generalized theory without local knowledge). Bresson’s fast, fluid, twisting narrative abounds in ellipses, gaps, silences, which “make strange” Michel’s devious growth, from `fleur du mal” to straight citizen. Both stories are told in flashbacks (a news magazine, Michel’s jottings). Kane’s friends editorialize heavily, Michel scantily or subtly (“I thought” insinuates “wrongly”). His reticence is “attitude,” of a kind: not “objectivity” exactly, but detachment, from his earlier self
Of all Bresson’s films, Pickpocket is closest to the French New Wave. In 1959 already, it deploys the same stylistic, fully evolved, perfectly accomplished: camera-calligraphy, as nimble as handheld; real locations; near-available lighting; disorienting cuts; strong shades-of-gray shots (between Dreyer and Rivette); a velvety moodiness (Malle); a psychology concerned to “mix” impulse, drift; and moral choice (Truffaut, Rohmer, early Godard); a related milieu — educated youth, marginalizing itself. Its Young Fogeys shared moral severity, of a worldly kind, with Hitchcock the sado-Catholic and Bresson the fastidious purist.

Pickpocket is solidly traditional, though also unconventional – like thorough Christianity. It reconciles realism and auteurist subjectivity by its selection from, and stylization of, real possibilities. It pushes mainstream devices, like riddle and ellipsis, to the point of qualitative change; but it’s less a subversion than a new, adaptative mutation of an old Christian ethos. As regards, not genre exactly, but “modality,” I’d call it a lyrical drama. It stays close to its protagonist’s conscious experience, without being limited to his PoV. It integrates individual psychology, social description, moral issues, etc., so that no single “level of logic” (or “structure”) can determine the story. Its loose succession of short, swift scenes resembles a “journal,” or a loose “chronicle,” like epic form, though its spirit, and logic, are radically different.



Rick Thompson for Senses of Cinema:

Lives and events in Pickpocket are not explained or motivated; the film’s genius is in cutting such material away, leaving only direct presentation. Bresson’s use of acting style and his refusal to supply psychological motivation thwarts our usual expectations of character explanation; and correspondingly, if his systematic use of ellipsis (separating events and sequences from one another rather than causally linking them) cuts off our dependence on the dominance of narrative, then the film has a large new latitude in which to operate – not the least effect of this is to concentrate our attention on the details of filmmaking. No longer practicing either to please or to explain, the film can now ask the viewer to take a meditative stance, to undertake an act of witnessing within frustrating limits, and so to have the time and opportunity to go back to/to begin with what is given by the film – the material world and what may be made to arise from it. Many viewers involve themselves in larger and more abstract issues (which the film certainly makes available), but the poetry and the wonder of this film begin here.
Faces – most notably that of Michel – are at the extreme of impassivity, their materiality one of non-intervention, their sensuality undeniable and unchanging, frozen amid a quiet frenzy of signals and actions. Hands, most particularly, have an independent life and art; everything done with hands is part of or related to the central (and quite sexualized) metaphor of the film, picking pockets, and each gesture needs to be remembered by us for comparison and recognition at a later stage of the film. As if it were not enough to be a virtuoso of hands, throughout the film Michel sends tantalising signals with doors how he opens them, how he closes them, how he finds them and how he leaves them – because the film is about Michel’s movement being arrested finally, a closing stillness enforced by the prison cell door he cannot physically open, a material condition of the transformation he undergoes in this concluding scene.
Michel manages to transcend these iron bars as the film brings its material vs spiritual issues to a conclusion. In one reading, Michel has avoided emotional contact with those around him, substituting instead a very pure mania for the precise, beautiful skills of picking pockets and the cat-and-mouse game of avoiding capture; in another view, he has pursued a monastic, disciplined, driven, and in some ways otherworldly life as one of Bresson’s saint-like characters, and a good deal of commentary on Pickpocket is religious interpretation concerned with Michel’s capture as a necessary precondition of his repentance and achieving grace. Another tradition wraps up Michel’s inadequacies and identity problems, his thieving from his mother and her death, the provision of a father figure in the policeman, and the surrogate nuclear family Michel assembles near the end of the film, into a Freudian sexuality reading complete with homosexual digressions via his Pickpocket mentor. Certainly the film provides us with a love story, or rather a coming-to love story, as Michel exchanges obsession and deferral – his Pickpocket world – for a newfound ability to love Jeanne; and while this love story is not told through l’amourfou or I’acte gratuit, neither are its reasons made available to us through the material world of the film.



A divisive take by Gary Indiana for The Criterion Collection, who saw Pickpocket for the first time on LSD.
Jonathan Rosenbaum defends Bresson against some of the film’s detractors, for Chicago Reader:

I find Bresson’s films highly physical and even carnal rather than ascetic. And the only thing wooden about the three principals in Pickpocket — Lasalle, Pierre Leymarie, and Marika Green, all of whom are interviewed by Babette Mangolte in her video documentary Les modèles de “Pickpocket” – is their lack of mugging. Bresson originally called his carefully chosen nonactors “interpreters,” later settling on “models.” He was more interested in capturing who they were than fussing with what they might want to project as performers, and all three were willing to follow his rigorous instructions to serve his art.
“I notice that the flatter an image is, the less it expresses,” Bresson wrote in 1959, “and the more it transforms itself in contact with other images. A film should be something in a state of perpetual birth.” The expressiveness of performers, locations, and individual shots got in the way of that perpetual birth, so Bresson brought out their more latent qualities — in the case of the performers, their souls or spiritual essences. All three were apparently transformed by the experience.
Martin Lasalle, who plays the pickpocket part, has a bony, sensitive face, but no deader pan has crossed the screen since Buster Keaton. He confirms in passing the startling idea that Charlie Chaplin was one of the few other directors Bresson liked. One might ask how cinema’s greatest master of expressive acting could have been admired by a director who suppressed expressive acting. A partial answer may lie in the reason avant-garde filmmaker Jean-Marie Straub gave for his startling contention that Chaplin was the greatest editor in the history of cinema: Straub said Chaplin knew precisely when a gesture began and when it ended. Bresson not only appreciated that talent but possessed it — it’s one of the things that makes him great too.


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