Pickpocket (1959)

Pickpocket (1959)

Bresson’s fascinating message of hope, simply but superbly deconstructs the addiction of a life of crime

Director: Robert Bresson

Cast: Martin Lasalle (Michel), Marika Green (Jeanne), Jean Pelegri (Police Inspector), Dolly Scal (Michel’s mother), Pierre Leymarie (Jacques), Kassagi (First Accomplice), Pierre Etaix (Second Accomplice), Cesar Cattegno (Inspector)

A man watches with fixed eyes, breathless and tense, as another man’s hands artfully dodge out from beneath his newspaper to caress the lapels of his fellow train passenger, coming away with a wallet clasped between the folds of his paper. It has a clammy sense of the illicit, a tempting underbelly of the world, where the normal rules don’t apply and the special can take advantage of others because they deserve the world’s benefits more. It’s about being a pickpocket, but it could be about any shadowy world just under what society permits, where the attraction is being part of the club more than any of the actual awards from the act.

No wonder pickpocket Michel (Martin Lasalle) starts to believe his own pumped-up hype: he’s no ordinary man, but a superman, an uber-mensch who has a right to help himself to the gains of others. Getting caught? It will never happen: after all just fools and little people stumble into that trap. Instead, Michel walks through the streets of Paris with the fixed glare of the addict, who can’t wait for his next stealing fix. He’ll take from anyone (even his own mother), ignore the pleas of friends, taunt a police inspector and hoard his gains in a secret nook under his bed. Even the glances that come his way from the daughter of his mother’s landlord, Jeanne (Marika Green), can’t win him away from his longing for the buzz of crime.

Bresson’s perfectly formed novella of a film (it clocks in at a trim 74 minutes) turns this into a profound journey into one man’s soul, where he will constantly dance between temptation and redemption. Loosely inspired by Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (the criminal who thinks he is a better man, the police officer he engages in a battle of wits), Bresson uses this underlying idea to craft a profound, articulate and focused study of the emptiness behind indulging our worst instincts.

Because that’s what Michel is doing. He’s clearly smart enough to find a proper job, casting aside the offers of his friend Jacques to fix him up. But he can’t raise the passion for a normal life. Bresson, whose style embraced the rawness of unnatural performers, almost literally plucked Martin Lasalle from the streets. Carefully tutored by Bresson, all artificial effects were hammered out of him, leaving Lasalle a blank and exact performer. It works perfectly for Bresson’s concept of the criminal as a dysfunctional human, unable to relate to or understand others, unable to engage in the world, coming to life for his crimes and plodding through the rest of time with monotony and a striking lack of emotional engagement. (It admittedly works less well for those scenes where Lasalle must demonstrate emotion, which he plays with a mechanical dutifulness.)

Michel can’t bring himself to see his dying mother, dropping money off with Jeanne to pass over for him (money, it later transpires, he had stolen from her in any case). His friendship with Jacques sees him go blandly through the emotions. We constantly see him trudging up and down stairs, opening and closing his door, moving his few possessions around, all of it with clockwork regularity that seems relentless. He falls in with fellow pickpockets but doesn’t even learn their names. The most he ever seems engaged is during his sly exchanges with a police inspector (avuncular Jean Pelegri) who seems certain he’s a thief.

Perhaps Michel is so relatively animated in these exchanges because he’s desperate to be caught. Because how can you be a superman, if no one can really see what you are doing? The bitter irony is, your genius for theft can only be publicly acknowledged by being caught, the greatest failure of any thief. But Michel longs, in some part of himself, for recognition, praise and to stand-out. His life – in a grimy bedsit, wearing the same ill-fitting suit (which hangs about him, as if exaggerating his blankness) – is strikingly un-special. His best attribute as a pickpocket is that he’s a non-entity you wouldn’t look at twice. Is there a bigger slap in the face for the man who would be king, that his greatest strength is his ability to not be seen?

It must be particularly harsh, as Bresson makes clear Michel isn’t even a particularly adept pickpocket. He fluffs his first few attempts, his heart pounding so much that he can’t bring about the steady hands needed. His early crimes are clumsy and ineffective. At a race meet that opens the film, he filches cash from a lady’s handbag and only a lack of evidence saves him when he is immediately picked up. When he is finally found by his expert accomplice (played by real-life thief, and master of sleight-of-hand, Kassagi), his crude techniques are ruthlessly exposed.

This would-be superman never reaches the heights of Kassagi. Bresson’s shooting of the pickpocket’s crimes are edited like the greatest heist thrillers, tense moments of balletic beauty. We see hands carefully unbutton jackets from behind. Wallets knocked out of pockets and caught as they slide down a person’s body. Wrists are clasped and stroked as watches are removed. The pickpockets work in a team of three: one takes the wallet, passes it to a second who palms it instantly to a third who escapes. All this is caught by Bresson with all the grace of Gene Kelly. It’s exciting, dynamic – and also (you can’t escape it) sensual. You can see why Michel gets such a thrill out of it.

But he’s also the least of his team of three – and when the other two get nicked, he really should take the hint. He practises at length to make his fingers more supple, his ability to grasp watches and wallets more fluid. But his movements are never quite graceful enough, his face always a little too sweaty, his eyes flicking a little too much as if worried about being caught in an assignation. Later he travels to London but returns penniless, too inept to keep hold of his cash from card-sharps.

Bresson’s film reaches, gently but highly effectively, for a spiritual message. What joy or grace is there for Michel? Crime and the dreams of being someone special fill a void in his life. That void has no room for friends or family. Not even for God, who he’s touched by “for three minutes” at his mother’s funeral. Even the (to us) evident love of Jeanne can’t really touch him enough to change his ways. Or at least, perhaps not until he hits rock bottom where, like Paul on the road to Damascus, he will have a sudden vision, trapped behind bars, that life can be different.

To give that impact, Bresson has to show (and understand) the lurid temptation of a life beyond the rules and the norms. Pickpocketing was his tool – and it perfectly conveys the addictive glamour of feeling superior to others – but really it could have been the buzz of any addiction, the thieves hunting each other out with the knowing eyes of fellow addicts. These sensual delights are false though, engaging and absorbing as they are. Told without melodrama, it’s a stunning, hard-boiled thriller that ripens into a profound, subtle and intelligent parable, assembled with a cool, exact genius that makes filmmaking look simple.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s