Robert Bresson’s ‘Pickpocket’: Crime and Redemption in Paris

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One of Robert Bresson’s easily accessible and most compelling films, Pickpocket is about a very lost, confused and lonely soul named Michel (played by Martin LaSalle) who resorts to a life of crime to make ends meet. Michel has so much in common with a famous literary character, Raskolnikov,  from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s widely celebrated novel Crime and Punishment, and it’s impossible to overlook the influence of the Russian author’s work on the film. Bresson opens the film at a racetrack and positions the tense Michel behind two people and framed in such a way that he appears sandwiched between them, his heart beating violently inside his chest as he anxiously tries to steal from a woman’s handbag.

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Michel is successful and feels elated after this deed. However, he is soon apprehended by the police but is let go due to lack of evidence. We learn that Michel has a dying mother who lives in the same building where he lives, but in different apartments. The reason for this is not immediately known to us. She is is looked after by a young woman named Jeanne who lives downstairs. Michel regularly hands Jeanne his loot and ensures that his mother is properly taken care of. Being a loner, he hardly has any friends and the only friend he has is a man named Jacques, who is trying to persuade Michel to get a job. But Michel doesn’t seem to care and becomes increasingly obsessed with the one profession that he is truly passionate about – pickpocketing.

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Just like the Dostoyevskian character Raskolnikov, Michel thinks that he is above the law and is of the view that it doesn’t and shouldn’t apply to some people, him being one of them. He lives in a fantasy world where he sees himself as one of society’s “supermen”, those who think they can make a change and provide hope to the downtrodden, despite being criminals who aspire to be Robin Hood. Michel speaks his mind and doesn’t hesitate to put his views out in the open, even when he is seated right across the police Inspector who had interrogated him after his arrest at the racetrack. He comes face-to-face with the Inspector again and each time this officer would let him know that he doesn’t share Michel’s views. “That’s the world upside down”, he says. Michel thinks it’s already upside down.

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Michel doesn’t seem to have a fear of prison as we get an inkling that the prison which he had constructed in his own mind would seem worse to him than a dingy jail cell. At one point he asks Jacques, “What do you know about prison?” The motivation for Michel’s actions become clear only towards the end when a certain revelation is made. But still, we are left to wonder if that is what really made him this way or is it because of the self-justified stance that he takes on crime. Michel’s only hope for salvation seems to be the young woman Jeanne, who may or may not possess the miraculous ability to transform his life. Bresson’s style is subjective.The story is narrated from Michel’s perspective and just like its elusive protagonist, the film too remains slightly detached and invites us to come up with our own assumptions about Michel.

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Pickpocket is not only an introspective character study but also a different take on the classic morality play. As the film’s opening crawl announces, the film is not a thriller and becomes a sort of transcendental experience that it hopes to be. Those who are unfamiliar with Bresson’s work might be slightly put off by the cold and wooden acting of the actors but there is a perfectly good reason for that. Every single actor who appears in a Bresson film is specifically instructed not to reveal anything about their characters through their mannerisms or dialogue delivery. You may see a tear or two shed here and there but oddly enough, there is zero emotion displayed. LaSalle is a non-professional actor and Bresson never used him again in any other film. This is true of all actors that Bresson had employed.

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Bresson presents us some of the most well-choreographed sequences ever put to film and those are the ones that either involve Michel skillfully executing his moves all by himself in various locations or with the help of his newfound colleagues. The camera continually focuses on their hands as they smoothly and cleverly move in and out of handbags and pockets or while trying to unbuckle the wristwatch of an unsuspecting passerby. There is an impressively staged sequence where Michel, unable to steal from a man, is assisted by his accomplices at the last minute. It’s a perfect marriage of sharp editing and elegant camera work. Every time I see the film, I get an effect that is almost equivalent to performing a deeply soothing meditation. To me, this is Bresson’s masterpiece.

The film served as the primary influence  for writer/director Paul Schrader while he was preparing the script for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Schrader once said of the film: “Pickpocket gave me the courage to write Taxi Driver, and from that point on I have never had a problem with characters that appear beyond empathy”. You can learn more about it by following the link below, where you’ll find his brilliant commentary on the film, which is available as a special feature on its Criterion disc.

http://diaryofascreenwriter.blogspot.in/2012/04/paul-schrader-on-bressons-pickpocket.html

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