The first Robert Bresson movie I ever saw was when I studied film in college. A Man Escaped (1956) (never released theatrically in the U.S.) turned out to be a simple, straightforward but exciting thriller about a French Resistance fighter who escapes from a prison during World War II. Pickpocket is one of the director’s most famous films and it shares a few similarities with A Man Escaped. It delivers thrills in pretty much the same no-nonsense way and the audience is invited into the mind of the protagonist as he talks to us in a voiceover. One key difference: this guy is much harder to like.
At a horse race, Michel (Martin LaSalle) steals money from one of the spectators. When he leaves, he’s arrested by the police but subsequently released because the inspector (Jean Pélégri) does not have enough evidence against him. Later on, Michel meets with his friend Jacques (Pierre Leymarie) and once again runs into the inspector. They have a drink and Michel tells him that he believes that some people ought to be able to enjoy special privileges due to the fact that they’re extraordinarily talented; should a member of this elite fall on hard times and resort to thievery, society should accept it and not punish him. It’s just a theory, Michel tells the police officer.
Over the next weeks, the amateur turns into a pro as he meets another much cleverer pickpocket. The Paris Metro becomes a perfect training ground for him…
Redemption dominates Michel’s journey
Pickpocket is sometimes lumped together with the films of the French New Wave, but it doesn’t really follow the “rules” of that movement. Still, it did portray wayward youth (as Breathless (1960) did) and Bresson has always been recognized as a true “auteur”, a theory closely aligned with New Wave. His style is obvious also in this film; the naturalistic performances, themes of redemption and exposure of the human soul are clear, and so are his techniques in the depiction of pickpocketing, unique to cinema as an art form. Bresson was known for his multiple takes meant to exorcise any kind of “theatrical” performance out of his actors. In this case, LaSalle as the pickpocket may come off as somewhat awkward and stiff, but he’s specially effective in the scenes where he’s trying to steal wallets. He looks as if he stops breathing for a minute as his fingers go to work, and so do we as we keep watching his face.
Bresson and cinematographer Léonce-Henri Burel’s camera registers his and the other pickpockets’ snappy movements (and occasional failures) and this is the highlight of the film – simple, exciting and perhaps even provoking thoughts among audience members on what it would be like to do something this audacious and shameful. As for the theme of redemption, it dominates Michel’s journey right up till the final moment when the penny drops.
There’s a girl also, naturally. She’s played by the beautiful, Swedish-born Marika Green, but her role is more difficult. Jeanne doesn’t seem able to do anything without the influence of men, including Michel… but one still can’t help feeling moved by the final scene and its moment of salvation for a man who’s too stupid to deserve one.
Pickpocket 1959-France. 75 min. B/W. Produced by Agnès Delahaie. Written and directed by Robert Bresson. Cinematography: Léonce-Henri Burel. Cast: Martin LaSalle (Michel), Marika Green (Jeanne), Kassagi (1st Accomplice), Pierre Leymarie, Jean Pélégri, Dolly Scal.
Last word: “I think [LaSalle] is marvelous. Extraordinarily, he identified exactly with the hero of the film: somehow a little lost in the world but very sensitive and clever, with an incredible manual talent. As a result, he became nearly as good a pickpocket as the professional I employed to teach him. The only difficulty I had with him is that he had a Uruguayan accent, which we succeeded in correcting.” (Bresson, Masters of Cinema)