Film review: Pickpocket. Robert Bresson

This understated rich film, a study in the existential crises of non existence, is based on another great existential text, Dostoyevsky’s crime and punishment. This particular review contains spoilers, because it is assumed most reading up on the film have watched it, but please see the film before reading through if you are not familiar with the story.

A pickpocket is a person active in transitions. When humanity is busy doing something else the pickpocket strikes. They walk against the transitional flow, always looking for the right person, vigilant when the rest of us aren’t. They exist in thoughtlessness. For the pick pocket you are anonymous. In giving your thoughts to your project you justify their existence.

Michael is a pickpocket. A Thief who believes those born intellectually superior should not be held accountable. Laws of the land are for the more banal, herdish folk of life. Michael believes this level of pre-eminence should be self determined, as if having the idea of being this superman is evidence of its existence. And yet, Michael suspects, this level of genius exists in the results of effort. Michael believes himself to be one of these geniuses, and yet teeters on the edges of taking action to prove his theory true, or more to the point, untrue.

Michael lives a sparse life of little pleasure. He lives in a sad poverty stricken apartment, will not visit his sick and dying mother, even to ease his own guilt, and develops a vague interest in a beautiful woman who belongs to another man. Michael believes in nothing. Despite the entreaties of a good best friend who supplies him with honest work, his dying mother who knows he can apply himself and the angelic Jeanne who begs him to visit his mother, Michael refuses to act according to conformity.

However, Michael is a bad pick pocket. He gets caught more often than not, by the police, or by the people he steals from. He attempts to co-opt picking pockets as his project. He reads books elevating the practise to a philosophical elegance, and rehearses in the company of talented thieves.

None of this justifies existence and Michael is caught in his own stasis. Michael is separated; even from his abilities. He declines to be good at anything, walking the streets of Paris with a maudlin look on his face, and a refusal to engage with life. Michael, it seems, is even above the rules he set for himself. He is at permanent odds with the world, and will not be good at anything.

It is only toward the end of the film, Michael experiences a sense of paying a certain kind of penance – not for his crimes – but for the inelegance of his crimes.   When Michael returns to the glum life where he will be caught, the inevitable eventuates. Sent to prison, he sits suited, upright on a firm made bed, holding his coat as if he is about to leave. In jail, he still can’t choose, can’t accept that he chose.

Only when captured, and behind bars, he allows the good Jeanne (now an abandoned mother) into his heart. Only with bars between them, will Michael be willing to conduct a relationship with her. In this he frees himself in a way, while locking her in a jail. Jeanne is the only deliberate choice Michael will make in the film. Even so, his freedom to choose is limited by jail and he is not free to be responsible for his choice. Again, Michael is able to avoid all the ramifications of choice.

Yet, this is a striking moment, because Michael smiles and experiences a caged intimacy with Jeanne breaking through to link him with humanity. The film implies it is only the love of a good woman freeing him from the self imposed jail, but one can also suggest he is not free to engage with the love of the good woman till the jail itself frees him to experience consequence.

Bresson discusses many themes in this film, including Michael’s existential crises. Michael is the perfect example of existence preceding essence. He exists. Nothing more is to be said of him. He has no project.

Also the film deals with Michael’s intellectual superiority. He is acutely aware of his aloneness. Anything other than an isolated existence is bad faith. Yet he chooses his existence without deliberate choosing. Even his mother tells him if he applied himself, things would be different.

Interestingly she exhibits pride for her son, even when she knows he stole from her. Both his mother and Jeanne respond to the universal in Michael. He is not his behaviours for them.

The film also examines the theme of the outsider and their role in society. Many breathtaking shots of Michael standing in a crowd, all faces looking in the same direction, highlight his aloneness. He stands so close he can pick pockets, an action alienating him from everyone.

He is always separate; always alone; always different. For Michael this separateness increases his use to society, and singles him out as special. People in his life will argue against this, trying to make him believe he is an outsider because he is a failure.

This film places high emphasis on transitional spaces; Hallways, corridors, stairwells, doors left open, turnstiles, and other places holding no importance other than to deliver you to a destination. So much of the visual narrative takes place in these transitional spaces, implying Michael is in limbo. He has left, but not arrived. He is aware he is an adult in the world, but he won’t yet take adult responsibility. Michael leaves his apartment door open when he vacates for the day, as if he is not sure of his own departure, or arrival later.

Like the idea of being alone in a sea of faces, Bresson uses hands in the film. Hands represent work – many hands make light work – in excising with his hands and practising, he is able to become a better thief. Even so, he sabotages this accomplishment, stubbornly refusing to be good at anything. Some of the most beautiful shots in the film occur while Michael is being trained by the skilled hands of cleverer thieves.

Hands and faces come together with tremendous beauty at the end when Michael and Jeanne reach for each other through the bars, Michael kissing her face, and Jeanne kissing Michaels hands. Love and some sort of peace exist when contact is made. Michael accepts her face. She is not an anonymous target. Jeanne accepts Michael’s hands. The talented hands of a man who refuses to use his talents.

Like all Bresson films, economy of style is one of the most profound experiences of Pickpocket. With almost no narrative, the actors are blank canvases with minimal expression.  Techniques Bresson uses deliberately open the empty world of one in existential crises. The film almost can’t be anything in itself. This film is as much a visual representation of its arguments and themes as it is a spoken one.

Bresson uses various cinematic techniques in order to properly capture the experience of Michael’s crises. For example, the film has thirty-seven scenes (standard for a film of its day) and yet the film is shorter than usual, which shows the scenes are shorter with an average running time of two minutes. Combined with minimalist acting, reduced characterisation by not declaring motivation, and an economy of style resulting in many ten second long scenes, this allows the viewer to share an experience of isolation.

The longer shots are reserved for the opening and closing of scenes. This is common for cinema of this age, but Bresson uses it to intense dramatic effect. An excellent example is the shot where he is leaving the race track, having successfully picked the wallet from the woman’s handbag. We see him walking and describing his euphoria, and then into shot arrive two plain clothes policemen following him. The dramatic weight of this technique serves to plunge us into a worldly experience when the shorter shots at the racetrack allowed us the freedom to experience the world as Michael does / wishes; The world without consequence.

The most spectacular and potent scene in the film is also one of the longest, and one of only two scenes performed in one single shot. Michael sits on his bed in the cell and hears footsteps coming toward him. In voice over he states “There is something I did not tell her. Why should I live? I had not decided anything yet.” He hopes the footsteps are coming to tell him Jeanne is visiting. When the sounds move past his cell and do not stop for him, He returns to his position perched on the edge of his bed and says “Jeanne did not return.”  This is the second longest shot in the film and the way the camera follows his movement to the cell door in anticipation and back to the bed dejected, give us a real sense of the importance to him of Jeanne’s next visit, as well as the physical confinement of being in a prison. Michael couldn’t be more trapped here. The footsteps are disembodied – he is still not connected.  He knows he didn’t choose. He wants to talk to Jeanne but that may be a ruined possibility, and the door to his room is locked. Without narrative, Bresson gives us access to Michael’s story.

I enjoyed this film. The subtlety moves under the skin and enters the blood stream. To drive the visual to the bare bones of life, to remove narrative, is to give us access to the basic of all human experience. I exist because I chose to exist. I give my breath, my bones, and my blood value. And yet, do I sell a part of me off in order to become? What is it I cling to in my attempts to avoid self actualisation? Is to choose life, also to choose death?

Highly recommended.

For an essay entitled “Reflections on the Pickpoket statistical analysis” by Donato Totaro  that I used in this post, go here. 

For the Strictly Film School essay on Bresson used as background for this post, go here.