Pickpocket (1959)
August 28, 2015 2:32 PM - Subscribe

This incomparable tale of crime and redemption follows Michel, a young pickpocket who spends his days working the streets, subway cars, and train stations of Paris. As his compulsion grows, however, so too does his fear that his luck is about to run out.

Part of the Criterion On Hulu film club. This film was streaming for free on Hulu this week as part of Criterion's weekly free film festival. You can vote on next week's film here: Criterion Free Movie Of The Week
posted by Ian A.T. (6 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Robert Bresson and Robitussin present...Pickpocket!

I'm glad I watched the film, but the biggest stumbling block I had with really connecting to it emotionally was that Michel was such a drag to be around. Not that the film itself was a drag, but the main character himself was so glum and cranky.

I'd actually like to read a bit more about why the film is so highly regarded. Again, I didn't dislike it, but I feel like I could use a little context for its masterpiece status. There's a Criterion interview with Paul Schrader that's pretty illuminating about the technical aspects of the film's accomplishments, but I'd like to see it in a historical context. In 1959, what made this stand out?

I was a bit baffled by the ending's apparent 180, and it didn't speak to me the way it has to others. But to be fair, I was similarly stymied by Cléo's emotional about-face as well, so maybe this period of French filmmaking just isn't for me.
posted by Ian A.T. at 7:27 PM on August 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

I rate this and A Man Escaped as the two most accessible Robert Bresson films. The thing that made Bresson stand out was the austerity of his style. He kind of stands in opposition to the rest of the New Wave, lacking Godard's and Truffaut's joie-de-vivre and completely disinterested in Hollywood style narratives. There is nothing flashy or romantic about a Bresson film. He hired no professional actors, so the acting tends to be understated and non-descript. That means his films stand or fall on strict formalist merits. That is, he generates suspense and interest in his stories through his visual composition and editorial choices alone. Not Pure Cinema as Hitchcock's films are often described but rather Purified Cinema, purged of artifice.
posted by wabbittwax at 5:32 PM on August 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

This was my first Bresson viewing, and yes, "austere" is definitely the word -- except what about those classical-music-scored pickpocket training montages? The Schrader interview notes that Bresson almost never uses close-up, but Schrader's talking about faces -- the pickpocketing shots are often downright sensuous.

This Criterion essay notes that the plot is lifted straight from Crime and Punishment. But in the original novel, the crime is murder. In Pickpocket, the crime is petty theft. What does it mean that Bresson's film deflates the severity of the crime, but his protagonist still talks about himself in terms of the Nietzschean superman?
posted by HeroZero at 7:46 AM on August 30, 2015

I think it's highly regarded because, while it's not that great as a story, it's just an astoundingly well made movie. Aside from the scene with the whole crew on the train, there's one scene that really stands out to me. We see a man get out his wallet, pay for something, then move on to queue up with his wallet in his hand with a little bit of a bill sticking out. After he closes his wallet, the camera zooms in. We get to watch closely as the pick is made and the loot secured. There are lots of shots like this in the movie. The lighting in the nighttime scenes along the shopping avenue was also just outstanding.

That said, while the scenes with the actual thieving were riveting, the rest of the picture was so boring I couldn't really say what happened.
posted by ob1quixote at 12:57 AM on September 4, 2015

Bresson is about details. Meticulous, tiny little details elevated to the level of the story itself. His focus on ambient sounds like the fabric rustling, shoes clacking, and liquids sploshing sometimes drowns out even the sound of speech. Notice how, in this, the voices are just a dull background murmur, while the background noises are amplified and articulated, almost as though the whole soundscape has been completely inverted by emphasizing the background details to the exclusion of the foreground.

In a sense, his style is simple and austere, but in another sense, it really isn't. His details are incredibly rich and dense and intricately choreographed. It's actually really complex, just not in the ways we're used to.

I've probably linked to The Hands of Bresson too many times already, but that's also a great articulation of Bresson's style. He inverts the classic movie language where the focus is so often on the expressiveness of faces; and people say he doesn't do closeups, but he does. It's just usually closeups of hands and feet and fabrics and things. And in the final scene of Pickpocket, he conveys Michel's realization of his affections for Jeanne by uncharacteristically focusing on their faces, separated by the bars. With most other directors, a scene like that would be unremarkable and mundane, but in Bresson's world, it's downright bombastic.

I have a pretty common problem watching movies where I get drawn into the details and the mood to the point that sometimes, I lose track of the plot. Like, I'm so busy looking at some lighting effect or textural detail or some background sound that I forget to pay attention to what is actually happening. (Even worse, I sometimes do it in real life. Like, don't ever tell me anything important if you're standing in front of an interestingly patterned stucco wall.)

So if Robert Bresson had made a movie of paint drying or of a non-professional actor reading a phone book, I would probably like that, too.

I completely get why that's not everyone's thing, but boy howdy, it sure is mine.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:16 AM on September 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

This Criterion essay notes that the plot is lifted straight from Crime and Punishment. But in the original novel, the crime is murder. In Pickpocket, the crime is petty theft. What does it mean that Bresson's film deflates the severity of the crime, but his protagonist still talks about himself in terms of the Nietzschean superman?

From the linked essay:

"stealing has a specific psychosexual meaning for him, beyond fulfilling the simple need to eat. Michel is like a man who knows he can cop an orgasm if he manages to be in the right place at the right time and rubs up against the right partner. His fears are more logistical than spiritual, and also function as aphrodisiacs."

Indiana doesn't force the point, which is to the good, but in order to understand the ending better perhaps, taking up that analogy a little more might be of help. If you think of Michel not being a pickpocket, but instead think of his crime as illegally cruising the streets for sexual encounters with other men, then the ending might take on a different tone. Declaring himself for Jeanne would only free him in the sense of accepting a more conventional relationship with the world, but doing that would also confine him in that normalcy which isn't who he really is. Having the conversion/conversation take place behind prison bars could be seen then as visually reinforcing the idea as the bars of the cell enforce his separation from Jeanne and show him as still confined even with his stated acceptance.

There was quite a to do about the idea of this movie having something like a gay subtext around the time Indiana's essay was written. A lot of cinephile fan boys, to no ones' surprise, are quite hostile to that reading, while some critics like Indiana and David Ehrenstein are fairly insistent that there is some underlying sexual text inolved. I side with Ehrenstein and Indiana, mostly because the movie makes more sense and is just better with that as a latent underpinning. Those who want to cast Bresson as more of a religious, in his way, filmmaker or transcendentalist seem to think any subtext along those lines harms their appreciation or "the meaning" of the film in some way.

I don't think one needs to cast it as an either/or kind of understanding. In fact trying to limit meaning to one or the other reading is itself diminishing the film. Having a more open response, where those different elements inform each other gives a richer experience in my opinion. Think, perhaps then of my suggested subtextual reading and forget the sexual element but apply that same trajectory to a more moral or quasi-religious view of the end and it can suggest perhaps an acceptance of the societal moral position for Michel's ongoing physical benefit as he would no longer be putting himself at risk of prison or worse, but it also might be an unfairness as his ardour and abilities are being wasted or lost. This doesn't seem entirely just for Michel, and expanding on that notion might suggest a deviant or subversive view on "god" or societal justice as well. Where to be physically free one must conform, while to be spiritually free one cannot conform for example, or maybe just show the limits of grace in the world. It needn't be one of those feelings alone that's captured, a masterful work can contain multiple, even contradictory possibilities, and that's what I feel Pickpocket does which is why I admire it.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:29 AM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

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