Pickpocket – Robert Bresson (1959)

One of the more subtle directors to come from outside of the French New Wave pool, Robert Bresson is a director more concerned with issues and ideas than the visual experimentation that obsessed Godard or Truffaut.  His 1959 film, Pickpocket, also shies away from the overtly political side of Alan Resnais and instead adopts an approach of social comment, which instantly seems refreshing.

Pickpocket follows the Crime and Punishment inspired Michael, who resorts to thievery after life gets on top of him.  Through obsession with slight of hand and the buzz of the steal becoming addictive, Michael becomes part of a gang who engage in mass pick pocketing in the Paris Metro system.

Bresson uses a cast of relative unknowns allowing the story breathing space to let its discourse on right and wrong flow freely without being hindered by celebrity.  Martin Lasalle gives a startling debut performance as the awkward but believable Michael whose hunched shoulders and philosophical reasoning for stealing make him an unforgettable character.  The rest of the cast are just as underplayed with many of them being debut performances too, at least in film.

Showing the thefts in particular almost as magic tricks lends the criminals a sense of respect from the viewer at the sheer audacity the thieves exhibit.  The practice montages could easily represent a magician’s practice routine, yet it’s only the desperation of the characters that forces them to make the moral choice to use their skills in negative ways.  Michael becomes addicted to stealing yet at the same time, it’s impossible to imagine the character resorting to theft without the obvious, engulfing poverty he’s surrounded by.  It gives the character power over others, something he’s clearly not used to having skipped in and out of jobs where he no doubt was treated like an insect.

The narrative eventually rewards our character for his misgivings though, having been caught and sent to jail.  Yet it is here where he realises that the empty nothing of his life that lead him to steal could easily be filled by the love of Jeanne, a woman present throughout the film yet ignored through an addiction almost manifesting itself as kleptomania.

The Artificial Eye release has a wealth of extras, all held on a second disc.  This includes an interview with Bresson himself, interviews with the cast, an academic discussion of the film and a performance by Kassagi, the magician playing one of thieves and supervisor on the film’s slight of hand.  The print is also excellent.

Overall Pickpocket is still relevant over forty years on.  The parallels with the 2011 riots are startling with poverty given as the main excuse for the looting yet Pickpocket does more than simply excuse the actions.  It questions the motivations behind them, breaks them down and begs the perpetrators to realise there’s more to life than illegal material gain.  It’s just a shame that the factors effecting the people of 1950s Paris have barely evolved and are ever present, raw, unashamed and blind in the minds the modern rioters; all modern day, hyper reality fuelled equivalents of Michael only in tracksuits rather than shirt and tie.

Adam Scovell

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