WARNING: some spoilers are present in this essay. Bresson’s films don’t rely on suspense or mystery to achieve their goals, so I don’t believe you’ll taint your viewing experience any by continuing. However, if you prefer to go into the movie without any knowledge of plot development, you’re best served to wait until you finish Pickpocket before reading on.
If French master Robert Bresson’s fifth feature, Pickpocket, doesn’t quite achieve the ethereal otherworldliness of Au Hasard Balthazar or Mouchette, that speaks only to Bresson’s uncanny ability to deliver transcendent masterpiece after masterpiece like no other. Bresson is perhaps the greatest of all directors, able to turn cinematic convention on its head and achieve an emotional honesty that few are capable of. Take the frequent subject matter of his work: topics that are, inherently, tailor-made for the thriller genre. A prison break (A Man Escaped). Joan of Arc’s trial (The Trial of Joan of Arc; natch). King Arthur’s quest for the holy grail (Lancelot of the Lake). Counterfeit money (L’Argent). And a master pickpocket who’s engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with the police (Pickpocket). Using minimalistic camera techniques and narrative structuring, Bresson strips these stories of all pretense, gimmickry and glamor, instead choosing to present their thematic cores at their purest, untarnished by directorial conceit or melodrama. The result is, consistently, the subtlest of beauties, barren of any emotional manipulation. Bresson’s work is truly gorgeous in its austere, emotional simplicity.
Pickpocket opens with the protagonist, Michel (Martin LaSalle, in his first role: Bresson only used unknown actors, and rarely used them more than once), scribbling in his journal. We’re quickly introduced to Michel’s inner voice, which, throughout the film, matter-of-factly discusses why he feels drawn to pickpocketing and the uncertainty that clouds his mind (Diary of a Country Priest and A Man Escaped use similar narrative devices). Michel lives in a slovenly room in Paris with little more than a bed, table, books and dust to keep him company. He wears the same slightly worn suit and black tie day after day. And he’s uncontrollably drawn to picking the pockets of pedestrians in crowded locales—Pickpocket‘s first sequence takes place in a tightly framed racetrack, people clustered together cheering on their preferred horses. Bresson never uses close-ups of the face, but he does time and again with other body parts: here, it’s predominantly the hands. In a precursor to many of the film’s most elegant scenes, we see Michel deftly unlatch a lady’s handbag and swipe a wad of bills. As he walks away, the aforementioned inner voice narrates that he feels invincible, on top of the world. A moment later, he’s caught, but we don’t see it. The shot immediately following Michel’s internal proclamation of power is of him sitting in a police station, directly across from the chief (Jean Pélégri). By not showing Michel’s arrest—which, for most filmmakers, would usually be the sequence’s money shot—Bresson has served notice that this will be a very different sort of movie, devoid of standard drama.
So, why does Michel do what he does? He’s constantly searching for meaning in his life: thievery fills part of a deep void, but opens up another. His friend Jacques (Pierre Leymarie)—who knows not how Michel ekes out a livelihood—attempts to get him some regular work, but Michel finds himself unable to take the opportunities in front of him, even if he recognizes deep down that he should. The shame in Michel’s soul over his way of being spills to the surface. His mother (Dolly Scal), whom he thinks knows nothing about his line of work, is on her deathbed, but Michel is so racked with guilt over his weakness of self that he can’t bring himself to visit her, preferring instead to leave money with her attractive neighbor and friend Jeanne (Marika Green), whom he’s developed complicated romantic feelings for. When Michel’s mother eventually passes away, her service reveals where Michel’s life of isolation came from—Jacques and Jeanne are Michel’s only company in the room. Watching a confused Michel stare blankly into space devastates in a manner that nobody but Bresson could put forth.
As Pickpocket progresses, Michel falls in with more sophisticated thieves who take him under their wing and teach him advanced techniques: Bresson uses an array of graceful tracking shots—never from too close in—to illustrate the extraordinary skillset the field requires (Michel hints at this in an earlier conversation with the Chief where he casually hypothesizes that if one has a gift that happens to be illegal, it should be morally acceptable). Why does Michel really do what he does? Because it’s all he’s good at—he believes its his chosen path because he’s never been shown another by a higher power. But Bresson can depict spiritual redemption like no other, and Michel is a prime example—his feelings for Jeanne, so restrained throughout, gradually peek through the clouds and burst through in the fabulous closing line: “Oh Jeanne, what a strange path I had to take to find you!” I will resist completely giving away everything in this review and won’t detail the final moments in their entirety, but Michel’s first real outburst of emotion is fully earned, the outpouring of pent-up misery and suffering that’s finally found an outlet and given long-lost meaning to his life. Poetic seems too weak a word to sum up Pickpocket‘s extraordinary arc: that it achieves so much in so short a time (75 minutes) is almost other-worldly.