Discover the Fine Art of Thievery in Bresson’s Pickpocket

Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:

Pickpocket (1959)

One of the things that sets humans apart from other species, besides the thumb, is their ego and the way it makes an individual (usually a man) believe he can rise above all the others by blazing a path of his own. Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket tells the story of such a man. Although it’s a movie that’s easy to watch but difficult to like, it certainly is memorable for the way it makes a seemingly indifferent person stick in the back of your head.

The film’s main character is Michel, a regular looking guy who lives on his own in a small room full of books and dust. He’s a loner, and his only close contact is his pal Jacques. He has a soft spot for his mother, but he avoids meeting with her face to face, leaving her care to the hands of her beautiful young neighbor, Jeanne. Michel wants to make something of himself but thinks he is too smart to follow the standard average procedures in life. He believes a man who is skilled enough to cheat without being caught should be rewarded by society. A cop listens to his theory and asks: “Who will identify those men?”

“Their conscience,” answers Michel.

Here is a man who desperately wants to prove something not to himself, his clean-cut buddy or even some smart cop, but to the women in his life: his mother, the one he’s in debt to, and Jeanne, the one whose love he has to earn. He firmly believes in his right to skip the rules so he tries a type of crime through which he can outsmart them, picking pockets. His first time gets him caught, but it gives him pleasure, the way he approaches his victim and works his way into her purse. Michel’s facial expression may be almost non-existent but between the act and the arrest he confesses feelings of superiority unknown to him before. After he’s released due to inadequate proof, Michel is right back on the “wrong” track, trying to learn all the tricks of the trade and practicing with religious zeal to make his hands quick and agile.

A while later, a master pickpocket spots his talent and recruits him for his gang. In a tightly choreographed scene, Bresson shows his admiration for the art of emptying people’s pockets as an ensemble. The gang of three almost rips off a whole train before stepping out while, in a rare humorous moment, Michel puts an empty wallet back to the pocket where he took it from a minute before. But he’s not so special anymore, the other two being even more skillful than he is, so when they are caught on the act he quickly leaves Paris in his sole logical decision of the whole film. This is, probably, the moment when Michel loses that arrogance that kept him so focused all along. After two succesful years as a crook abroad, he returns home. Almost accidentally, as he puts it, he falls in front of Jeanne’s door. Earlier on, he asks Jeanne if she believes all people will be judged. She says yes, so he follows his question with another one: “Judged how? According to laws? What laws?” But now Michel craves to be judged. By the laws cause he has to, and by Jeanne cause he needs her acceptance.

Bresson’s underlying theme of redemption through self-accusation and punishment, for even daring to think bigger than you’re allowed to, is an obvious reference to Christianity since the director was known to be religious. But if you see it in a different light, it’s simply universally human. A man is not only afraid of failure but, often enough, he gets horror-chills from the very thought of success and the loneliness that goes with it.

Michel couldn’t care less about losing to the system as long as he knows there may be no real point in winning after all. After going along with his vices, the only thing that makes sense is coming back to another human being’s warmth. That a smart cop sees through him early on, gives him a sense of security rather than fear. It’s a way out of his microcosm, proof he still exists within the real world which he uses as an escape door when he decides to return there for Jeanne.

As for the popular assumption of the sexuality beneath Michel’s interaction with his victims and his peers, it’s an overplayed cliche, a case of wanting to see something so much it’s bound to appear. The way I see it – every accomplishment or moment of tension potentially provides a substitute for sexual satisfaction. Michel watches a master pickpocket at work with admiration and discovers the other members of the caste he dreams about. It’s got to be fulfilling at least, before it all blows back to his face.

Bresson’s actors are non-professional. Plus, they’re overworked, and it shows. Obviously the master wanted it that way, to let the story be told by movements rather than expressions. Whether we like it or not it works, minus a few moments of abnormal inertia. The dialogue is minimal and the first-person narration provides information about the central character without over-explaining. In the end, behind bars, a redeemed Michel wonders: “Jeanne, to reach you at last, what a strange path I had to take.” There are times in life when it’s not the trip, but the destination that counts most. Unfortunately, that trip is usually inevitable.

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