Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Pickpocket (1959)

Director: Robert Bresson                               Writer: Robert Bresson
Music: Jean-Baptiste Lully                            Cinematography: Léonce-Henri Burel
Starring: Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, Jean Pélégri and Dolly Scal

Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket is a fascinating character study of a man who has resorted to crime to support himself and his aging mother. Though not strictly part of the new wave, it was filmed in the same year as Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and definitely inspired those filmmakers who are associated with that burgeoning style. What it seems to resemble more, however, is Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves in its overall emphasis, only this time instead of a wife and child to feed which drives the protagonist to a single crime of desperation, Bresson’s film begins after the decision to resort to crime as a career and focuses on the angst associated with his decision. What makes the film differ so greatly from Truffaut’s new wave is the emphasis on plot and the underlying philosophical questions posed by Bresson's script.

Martin LaSalle plays a gaunt, out of work Parisian who is good with his hands and begins to think that becoming a pickpocket could be a way out of his poverty. The film begins as a confession, whether a diary or compelled by the police the audience doesn’t know. But there is a sense that he has created some of his problem for himself. When he meets a friend at a bar and asks if he knows of any jobs, the friend is reluctant because he has apparently done this before and LaSalle has failed to follow up. Then they meet with the police inspector and begin to discuss the nature of criminality in a way that brings to mind Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. LaSalle is of the impression that if a man is a genius in society, the only way to express his talent fully is if he is allowed to break some laws. In the end, he claims, the crimes are only a step on the ladder of the man’s evolutionary genius, toward something that will ultimately benefit society.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is how many times LaSalle gets caught while honing his craft. The tension in the piece, rather than being diminished, is actually heightened by those moments. Eventually LaSalle becomes associated with others plying his trade, and while they work together they purposefully know nothing about each other so they can’t turn each other in. Like a lot of French works from this period the actors are not professional, and what they bring to the screen is not about conveying message but simply delivering it. The audience, then, is left to interpret the meaning on their own, without assistance from the actors. Similarly, Bresson’s style subverts audience expectations right from the opening of the film when a written narrative states clearly that the film is not made in the style of a thriller. But it’s also much more than simply “using sight and sound to express . . . a nightmare.”

The film is not nightmarish in any way. There is a relentless drive forward in the narrative that pulls the viewer along in spite of what they may desire. Unlike the protagonist in Bicycle Thieves, LaSalle is not panicked, even when he gets caught. He perpetrates the crimes because he can, because that is what he wants to do. There is no question of morality in his acts, something he tells Marika Green, the love interest. What emerges out of the film is a deliberateness that tests the notion that film language is static, and that one must use the proper language to be understood. Bresson subverts that language at every turn, and while not something a typical American film audience would call entertaining, there is something important in this discourse that benefits us all. In a sense, Bresson himself is the Pickpocket, committing crimes against the audience for the greater good that results.

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