Pickpocket (1959)

Review #1,322

Director:  Robert Bresson
Cast:   Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, Jean Pélégri
Plot:  Michel takes up picking pockets as a hobby, and is arrested almost immediately, giving him the chance to reflect on the morality of crime.  After his release, he rejects the support of friends in favour of returning to pickpocketing.

Genre:  Crime / Drama
Awards:  Nom. for Golden Bear (Berlin).
Runtime:  75min
Rating:  PG for some mature themes.
International Sales:  MK2

“Oh, Jeanne, to reach you at last, what a path I had to take.”

Often regarded as one of the most ‘Christian’ of filmmakers, Robert Bresson was also one of cinema’s greatest philosophers and existentialists, in the league of Tarkovsky, Bergman and Dreyer.  His body of work is incredible and inspiring for any filmmaker or cinephile to uncover. 

Pickpocket, his fifth feature after Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and A Man Escaped (1956), runs at a paltry 75 minutes, but is economical for good reason—any longer and it might just run out of steam.  A bare, stripped-down form of cinema that invites consternation and adulation in equal measure, Pickpocket is one of Bresson's most valuable experiments. 

The plot is simple: a young man with an ailing mother tries to make ends meet through pickpocketing.  But under Bresson's sleigh-of-hand, an intentionally awkward and meandering work pulls off one of cinema's most unforgettable endings—a burst of emotion when there was none before, a radiant sense of hope and redemption when everything seemed bleak and preposterous. 

Inspired by Dostoyevsky's 'Crime and Punishment', Pickpocket eschews the conventions of narrative filmmaking with Bresson demanding that the nonprofessional cast avoid acting, but to embrace being.  There are no exaggerations of feelings and emotions are stifled—there is no performance to behold, except to absorb the mundane.

Moreover, Bresson doesn't give us any semblance of a story hook.  Our interest comes largely from the fascination of seeing how a master director philosophize a pickpocket and his existence.  It can test your patience, and a lot things are implied, but the rewards are mammoth. 

There are some scenes with superb pickpocketing choreography, a devious art elevated by clever editing and blocking, to the point that they seem artificial and allude to a pickpocketer's fantasy.  Some critics have even pointed out that pickpocketing is an act of molestation leading to rape—in this case the rape of the bourgeoisie by the strugglers of society. 

Bresson largely keeps the film grounded.  We don't quite connect with the characters; neither do they allow us to invest a lot of ourselves emotionally.  Yet, the distancing effect finally turns into a kind of spiritual affect—you need to experience it for yourself as it defies description.  What I can say is, by the end of the film, my soul was raised. 

Verdict:  Bresson’s work throws genre and filmmaking conventions out of the window, but thoroughly elevates our soul by the end of this masterful exercise.


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