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Pickpocket (1959)

Directed by:

Robert Bresson

Rating: 9/10

Running Time: 73 minutes

UK Certificate: PG

On DVD

Country: France

Solitary misfit Michel (Martin Lasalle) has decided to try his hand at picking pockets, but gets caught after his very first attempt – only to be released by the chief inspector (Jean Pelegri) for lack of evidence. Reluctant to visit his dying mother despite the encouragement of her young neighbour Jeanne (Marika Green) and his own sometime friend Jacques (Pierre Leymarie), Michel is drawn back to lifting wallets on trains, eventually gravitating towards a more experienced pickpocket (Kassagi) with whom he soon forms a skilled team. Yet as their operations grow more elaborate, so does Michel’s need for greater risk and his apparent desire, however conflicted, to get caught.

On the surface, ‘Pickpocket’ seems the exact opposite of Robert Bresson’s previous film, ‘A Man Escaped’ (1956) – for where one ends with its hero escaping to freedom, the other ends with its protagonist locked behind bars. These differences, however, are only superficial, for in fact right from the very beginning of ‘Pickpocket’, Michel is a prisoner of his own anxiety, deceit, paranoia and guilt, cooped up in a cell-like garret, and, as his introductory voice-over makes clear, condemned to a life of silence and solitude by his criminal doings. It is only when he ends up in prison that he can speak and write openly about who he is. Unlike before, when all the physical contact he ever had with others was a furtive flick of the fingers over wrists or breastpockets, he is now able for the first time to reach out to someone – even if it is through prison bars. He has at last escaped his self-enforced detachment from others, and so is, paradoxically, free.

Despite its concern with police procedural and the mechanics of crime (including a breathtakingly virtuosic sequence in which Michel and two accomplices work a train station, adroitly relieving unwitting travellers of their property), ‘Pickpocket’ is, as its introductory text insists, no ‘policier’ or crime thriller, at least not in the conventional sense. Rather it is an intriguing and complex profile of a lost soul, inspired less by the cops-and-robbers plotting of pulp fiction than by the moral richness of Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’. Anguished, estranged, convinced of life’s absurdity, and finding fulfilment only in his determined actions, Michel is the kind of hero, or anti-hero, celebrated by the French existentialists, and who would later feature in Jean-Pierre Melville policiers like ‘Le Samouraï’ (1967) and ‘Le Cercle Rouge’ (1970). He is also, in his compulsive delinquency, that most fascinating of cinematic figures, the rebel without a cause, and ‘Pickpocket’ is certainly, amongst other things, a rites-of-passage film.

Melville was also greatly influenced by the spare style of ‘Pickpocket’ – for Bresson has pared his film down to its barest essentials, and coaxed extraordinary restraint from his cast of mostly non-professional actors, with Martin Lasalle in particular giving a performance of mesmerisingly blank intensity as Michel. Such austere economy leaves considerable room for the viewer’s imagination to roam in retracing the elliptical and enigmatic trajectory of Michel’s ‘strange path’. For like a wallet conspicuous in a mark’s pocket, it is easy to see from the outset where this film’s plot will end up, but several viewings are required to understand just how it gets there – making ‘Pickpocket’ a true classic that dazzles with its meticulous craftsmanship, while expanding and evolving in its significance each time it is viewed.

It's Got: Highly contained performances (especially from the matchless Martin Lasalle), where subtle glances and the most nuanced vocal inflections reveal a universe of character detail; lightning-fast, meticulously orchestrated pickpocketing scenes that demand multiple viewings; an impressively spare economy that, far from emanating cool, seems to bristle with anxiety, claustrophobia and nihilistic despair.

It Needs: The number for Kleptomaniacs Anonymous.

DVD Extras Disc One: Black-and-white feature, French language with optional subtitles (English, German, Spanish and Italian); scene selection. Disc Two: an interview (6min) with writer/director Robert Bresson from 1960, who declares "Id rather that people felt a film before understanding it", and discusses his rejection of theatrical techniques; Les Modèles de Pickpocket (52min), featurette made (and pretentiously narrated) by Babette Mangolte, featuring excellent interviews with Pierre (Jacques) Leymarie, now the head of a genetic research lab, who discusses how Bresson would "brainwash" his actors with multiple takes, and how the film "was just a summer job", with Marika (Jeanne) Green, who shows her original copy of the script, and with Martin (Michel) Lasalle, now a bearded recluse in Mexico, on how the film was "the best experience of my life" – even if it took him 10-15 years to recover from it; Autour de Pickpocket (13min), intelligent post-screening discussion of Pickpocket by star Marika Green and filmmakers/fans Jean-Pierre Améris and Paul Vecchiali (who claims to have seen it over 200 times); Kassagi (11min), a 1962 cabaret performance, including razorblade swallowing and amazing pickpocket feats perpetrated on the audience by Kassagi, who was the films consultant on the thieves sleight-of-hand methods, and played Michels first accomplice. Version reviewed: Artificial Eye Two-Disc Edition DVD Extras Rating: 7/10

Alternatives:

Le Cercle Rouge, Le Samouraï, Marnie

Summary

Flawless examination of a pickpocket whose criminality is its own punishment.

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