Directed by Robert Bresson
Produced by Agnès Delahaie
Screenplay by Robert Bresson
Cinematography by Léonce-Henri Burel
Edited by Raymond Lamy
Hulu Plus streaming
I wonder what kind of direction Robert Bresson gave his actors. From what I gather, Bresson didn’t use professional actors and while that may have been trying at times, it was probably a stroke of genius. Did he just give them a situation and tell them things like “Behave like you think a pickpocket would behave just before attempting to lift a man’s wallet” or something like that? I have only seen two of his films: this one and A Man Escaped (1956), which came right before Pickpocket. Both films have an almost documentary feel in places. Part of that is due to the “actors” and part is due to Bresson’s unconventional manner of filmmaking.
In his review of the film, Roger Ebert states “All Bresson wanted was physical movement. No emotion, no style, no striving for effect. What we see in the pickpocket’s face is what we bring to it. Instead of asking his actors to ‘show fear,’ Bresson asks them to show nothing, and depends on his story and images to supply fear.”
The story itself is quite simple: Michel (Martin Lassalle, above center) is a fairly ordinary young man wearing a rumpled suit, living in a seedy little room with a bed and several books. He maintains a small hiding place by his bed, an area where he stashes the money he’s stolen, constantly checking, fearing that someone has discovered it. Michel is good at hiding his money, hiding in plain sight in a crowd, and of course, hiding his intentions while he’s working.
He’s also hiding from relationships, especially his relationship with his mother. Jeanne (Marika Green, above), a neighbor of Michel’s mother, comes to tell him that his mother is ill, that he should visit. He can’t be bothered; he’s too busy practicing his craft. He has another “relationship” of sorts with a police inspector (Jean Pelegri), who knows Michel is working as a pickpocket. Their exchanges imply a much greater degree of intimacy than that of Michel and his mother, not in a sexual way, but rather two people who understand the truth about each other.
As Paul Schrader mentions in the film’s introduction (which is also on Hulu), much of Bresson’s film is unconventional. The camera rolls before scenes actually start and ends far beyond a scene’s natural end. Such a practice unnerves us, puts us off-balance. For a medium that requires movement, there’s really not much movement at all, and when there is movement, it’s fairly routine, leisurely. In fact, the pace of the film is so leisurely that when Michel does go into pickpocket mode, Bresson relies on several quick cuts, close-ups of hands and wallets. These moments feel like bolts of lightning compared to the slow pace of the rest of the film and also give us an intimacy of vision that’s lacking in most of the movements of the characters. That slow build also gives the film’s final scene tremdous impact.
Ebert is correct in pointing out that what we bring to the film is as important (perhaps even more so) as what Bresson shows us visually. Someone might see Pickpocket and come away thinking, “Not much really happens,” but you the viewer have to do some work, too. This isn’t James Coburn in Harry in your Pocket or Will Smith in Focus. It goes deeper than that, yet without the glitz and spectacle.
Although they are quite different films, both A Man Escaped and Pickpocket deal with isolation and redemption in unique ways. Ebert also mentions in his review that Bresson is perhaps the most Christian of filmmakers. If that is so, he doesn’t preach by pointing out the log in your eye, but rather gently guides you towards a mirror, letting you see it for yourself.