A masterpiece that distils Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Camus into its fascinating protagonist, Robert Bresson’s 1959 Pickpocket inhabits the nihilist universe of a man, whose lack of feelings goes beyond the pathological and for whom punishment seems futile as it is desirable.
In the films of Robert Bresson, where emotions are hard to be found, facial expressions are nonexistent and the approach to acting is stripped to a minimum, the eyes of the characters become our dramatic guides. Thus, actions have to be taken at face value (!!) As the contrast between speech and body language is partially nullified, viewers ought to search inside themselves for further confirmations of what is being presented to them. Who could be better then, than a Russian master to guide the tale of the pickpocket?
Like Crime and Punishment‘s main character Raskolnikov, Michel (Martin LaSalle) begins the story by reminding us of the time he spent thinking about the crimes he’s about to commit. At the horse racing, he steals cash from a woman’s purse, is caught immediately after and soon released. Next day, he decides to visit his mother and there he meet Jeanne (Marika Green), whom he trusts some money to be given to his mother. In a bar, Michel meets his friend Jacques (Pierre Leymarie) for a drink and advice on how to find a job. When he spots the Chief Inspector (Jean Pélégri), who arrested him the day before, all three have a chat about Nietzschean ideals.
He then goes on a spree of pickpocketing on trains. One night Jacques brings Jeanne to Michel’s quasi-slum quarters. She tells him that his mother is very ill and she keeps asking why he never visits her. Instead of following them, he goes to a bar and meet another criminal who teaches him several stealing tricks. After his mother’s funeral, the Chief Inspector visits him and gives hints that he might know of his activities. Michel then leaves the country, first for Italy and then for a two year stint in England. When, he returns to France and finds out that Jeanne has had a baby by Jacques, Michel decides to find a proper job. Eventually, he tries to start stealing again when he is arrested. As Jeanne keeps visiting him in jail, Michel realises that he loves her.
..Just to Take… For the Sake of Taking.
Like many of Bresson’s masterpieces, Pickpocket – released after A Man Escaped (1956) and before The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) – is particularly apt for the expressionless style of its director. As the main character’s activities – like his predecessor’s – require a high level of concealment, the fact that Michel never hints of satisfaction with a smile or shows frustration from grimaces or frowns just enhances the ambiguity of the whole enterprise. The scene inside the train, in which Michel pretends to read a newspaper and stands a few centimetres from his potential victim illustrates the point well – the whole situation is indeed enthralling, charged with electrifying tension.
Even though we can almost feel the edginess that emanates from his body, the insight is not gained from any betrayal in his facial expressions. That surely comes from the same principle, admired, indeed championed, by Alfred Hitchcock, who liked to point out the difference between surprise (when audiences do not know what’s about to happen) and suspense (when they do, but the characters don’t). The scene is exhilarating because we know Michel’s intention, implied by the tale, but are confronted with his unaffected face. This is exactly what Bresson always wanted to achieve: to rely solely on the story to create interest – audiences will bring their own emotions to the tale.
Michel’s apathetic frame of mind reminds us of another notorious emotionless guy: Meursault, the protagonist in Camus’ L’Étranger. Michel’s gazing into nothingness would not be out-of-place in Meursault’s face. Both characters feel no particular sadness with their mothers’ death. And although both characters are cowards in their refusal to face up to life’s hardships in a mature way, in dealing with the meaninglessness of all existence, in confronting the shallow ideals of the bourgeoisie, they are leaving an important legacy for these godless times of ours. Although none of this is original, it is nonetheless important to point out.
Soon after his first theft, Michel walks out of the racing tracks and reminisces that ‘I was walking on air, with the world at my feet.’ What is supposed to be a feeling of ecstasy is shown instead, in the typical Bressonian way, with a dispassionate demeanour and no enthusiasm at all. By watching the film a second time, with the story now known and the style absorbed, one is compelled to wonder where Michel, the confused young man – who felt the need to steal to prove a point to himself – finishes, and Michel, the character inside the film – personified by Martin LaSalle, this Uruguayan non-actor, who was certainly instructed by the director to repress his emotions – starts.
It sure is a blurred line – likewise in life… I’m not here trying to justify a denial of the categorical imperative. It is just that for people like Raskolnikov, Meursault and Michel the absence of laws is a law unto itself. More pertinently, it is as if Bresson’s style reached its pinnacle with A Man Escaped and especially, Pickpocket, a masterwork of minimalist cinema, with so little on the surface and yet so much buried deep inside.