Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959)

The spectacularly-choreographed and shot pickpocketing sequences in the likes of subways and train cars and such, and Michel’s spoken beliefs concerning theoretical supermen who should be free from the constraints of laws and society-induced morals, make you think that this is like “Pickup on South Street” or “Rope”, respectively, if those two films took themselves much more seriously than they actually do, but “Pickpocket” is so much more than a more depressing, less fun version of “Pickup” or “Rope”, and to arbitrarily group it with those films, or any other type of film for that matter, is unfair.  For one thing, even though the opening message informs us that the film is not meant to be a thriller, it certainly has outstanding thriller elements – quite a few times I was at the edge of my seat and unable to swallow my saliva as a nervous Michel’s hand moved ever-so-slowly towards his mark’s wallet-filled pocket (oh, and the train station sequence, in which Michel and his accomplices go to town, using the station and its patrons as their own personal playground, was absolutely ludicrous and farfetched, but absolutely, absolutely incredible and fun to watch, the way Bresson focuses so much more on hands and fluid closeups of those hands in action than on faces or bodies in motion.  This is how to film a cinematic set-piece…of any kind).  And the sign of a pretty great film, and a pretty greatly-realized protagonist?  Even though he’s pretty much scum – refuses to see his dying mother, rebuffs the attention and advice of the kindly and beautiful Jeanne (at least for the most part…it’s the evolving relationship between Michel and Jeanne that I couldn’t get into, leading to the ending that turned out to be one of my few gripes about the film), makes philosophical excuse after excuse for his crimes and egotistical claim after claim for why he, this petty rat of a thief living in a dusty shithole, is superior to those around him – I was hoping and praying he’d succeed in his crime and getting away scott-free without his victim finding out.  Perhaps that was merely because I knew the movie would be much less interesting if he was caught in the first five minutes, but regardless, Michel’s clear talents and even clearer flaws are oddly endearing, and whether his superman theories and claims of moral and intellectual superiority are genuine, or merely a way to hide his immense insecurities, he’s a great, flawed anti-hero.  In this short, 75-minute film about this insignificant nobody who steals chump change and wristwatches, it’s remarkable how telling it is of the concept of addiction and vices in general.  The relatively emotionless, outwardly arrogant, inwardly insecure, unable-to-stop Michel could be any one of us, revolving his or her life around a compulsion – alcohol, drugs, pornography, food, stealing, lying, or what have you – a compulsion he or she may not even enjoy, and in fact may loathe, but is so ingrained in their daily routine that they’ll make every excuse and every justification to continue doing that thing, to the point that that action defines them more than anything else.  With that in mind, Bresson’s well-known technique of wiping recognizable emotion from his actors arguably serves an added purpose here, as Michel, who’s ordinary and unassuming enough to be an ordinary and unassuming contributor to society, allows the act of opening jacket buttons and grabbing some spare change to define who he is.  His Bressonian blank face, then, is not just a means of acting natural as he commits his crimes so as to not get caught, but is also, like his Nietzschean Superman description of himself, a mask indicative of the dehumanized husk that he’s allowed himself to become.  I felt no sympathy for Michel when considering how he willingly allows himself to become this kind of person, and yet at the same time, I couldn’t help but sympathize, and identify, and attach a piece of myself to him.  Bresson nailed it.

9/10

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