Criterion: Pickpocket, 1959
PICKPOCKET, ROBERT BRESSON, 1959
Pickpocket is one of those films that I’m surprised I haven’t seen. It has been referenced numerous times in film class, and its influence on other films is well documented. It is arguably the most influential Bresson film, which is saying something. Even though I hadn’t seen it, I felt like I had. I’ve seen the ending maybe a half-dozen times, and I’ve seen it copied, most notably by Paul Shrader who was obsessed with the film and contributed towards it being revisited and eventually enshrined as one of the greats.
I have seen enough other major Bresson works that I’m familiar with his quiet, contemplative, and spiritual style – the Bressonian tone. Au Hazard Balthazar, Lancelot du Lac and others are beautiful, yet challenging films. A Man Escaped shares more in common with Pickpocket. They both have quiet, downtrodden characters, both with often expressionless performances. These explain why the film is often watched multiple times, because the subtleties in expression are easier picked up on subsequent viewings. Even the slightest reaction becomes more monumental, more telling, and makes you question what the film is trying to say.
I’ve heard people describe both Pickpocket and A Man Escaped films as slow, but compared to some of the spiritual films, they are quite fast paced. Pickpocket moves very fast for a Bresson movie, as pointed out in the commentary. If you break down the events that take place in the plot, it sounds like a bit of a thriller:
SPOILER ALERT —
Man steals to help his sick mother.
Man gets caught, gets let go.
He learns more about how to steal.
Goes on a thieving spree with two accomplices.
Gets interrogated by police, close to being caught.
Leaves country, comes back and tries to steal again.
Gets caught, thrown in jail.
Gets redemption through a girl.
I could see another director taking the same plot points and making the film more exciting, less memorable, and a more fleeting and bland experience. This film is not just about what happens to the pickpocket. It is about exploring his soul, why he becomes what he becomes, how he lives with it, and why he comes back to it.
Movie Rating: 9.5/10
The introduction from Paul Schrader is interesting and useful, but not essential. He explains what he sees in the film, how it has affected his career, and why it has lasted.
There is a short French TV interview with Bresson in 1960. What I found interesting about this was that the interviewers were antagonistic, and somewhat attacked the film and it’s cool reception. For instance, they asked why Pickpocket was disliked when A Man Escaped was liked. Bresson handled himself well, and said that people identified more with the hero and escapist rather than the criminal.
Film scholar James Quandt’s commentary was extremely well prepared and said a lot about the film. If anything, it was too academic and robotic, but that’s what I look for in academic commentaries. These are the types that really enhance the perception of the film. He points stuff out that you might eventually come to on your own after half a dozen views, or looks into various readings of the film. Because Pickpocket is such a quiet film, I appreciated his constant vocal presence and that he always had something to say.
The best feature was a documentary from 2003 where the filmmaker tracked down three of the former stars. The interviews with Pierre Leymarie and Marika Green were captivating because they go through the Bressonian process, and how he breaks down the performance for the amateur actors (or Models, as he called them), so that they are not really acting. He takes take after take to get what he wants and never lets the actor know which it is, but tends to use the later takes when the actor is tired. That is certainly apparent in Pickpocket, where all the actors have a worn down look, and explains why the tone and character appearance is consistent throughout most of his films, because he just about always uses non-actors and molds their performance the way he wants.
In the second half of the documentary, they find Martin LaSalle living a quiet life in Mexico City. He recalls his experience in fascinating detail, but focuses more on the emotional impact that the entire process left on him. He said it took him 10-15 years to recover from the experience. He went to study with Lee Strasburg and barely worked in the decade after Pickpocket, until eventually settling in and making a living. His personality was affable and gregarious. You could see moments of dourness, especially as he recalled the aftermath of the movie, but overall he was a pleasant person. I see that he has continued to act in Mexican films, and he is probably very happy with these occasional small roles that allow him time to tend to his gardening.
Criterion Rating: 10/10