Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959): France

Reviewed by Lauren Sousa.  Viewed on Criterion VOD via Hulu Plus

Robert Bresson’s 1959 masterpiece Pickpocket is not about likeable people. My sympathies are not always with the protagonist. Sometimes, indeed, the antagonist is a more appealing character. In an age when likeability is often seen as one of the most important traits in a movie protagonist, this film is an excellent demonstration in how that is not always the case.

The fleet film begins with Michel (Martin LaSalle), a clever young man with job opportunities but no job of his own, stealing money from a woman’s purse. Nearly caught, his crime is impossible to prove, and so he begins a new life, eeking out a meager existence as the titular pickpocket. These first few scenes are exciting and engaging; while I certainly don’t like Michel, I very much want to see what happens to him next. The film’s ending is almost inevitable, but watching the journey can be exhilarating, as during a sequence when Michel and other practiced pickpockets form a syndicate of sorts and steal from numerous patrons of a train.

It can also be depressing. His life is, indeed, very small and petty; he refuses to see his sick mother, though he will leave her money. Despite the modest stack of cash in a hole in the wall, he still lives in a room with a bare lightbulb, lacking even a doorknob. His theory of a race of “supermen” who, he says, ought to be allowed to break the law on occasion, seems a mere excuse for his behavior. Author Gary Indiana recently posted an essay for the Criterion Collection stating that the film is really about Michel’s love for pickpocketing and subsequent escape from wage, slavery, the only thing that makes him feel alive, rather than his nominal love interest (his mother’s neighbor) Jeanne (Marika Green). This is certainly an interesting thesis, supported, I think, by the kinetic quality of the pickpocketing scenes contrasted with his arguable love scene with Jeanne at the film’s end, which seems to express something more like desperation than actual affection.

As sad as it sometimes seems, it goes without saying that it’s worth a watch, if only for the simple pleasure of L. H. Burel’s cinematography, replete with shadows, capturing a worn, hopeless Paris that surely influences and reflects Michel’s perspective. Finally, the performance of Jean Pélégri as the police chief and Kassagi’s techniques and explanations (the performer was a real pickpocket at the time) bring some lightness to the proceedings.

Overall, Pickpocket is not a happy film, and it’s not a particularly optimistic one. It will, however, hold your attention, and it deserves it.

 

 

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