Friday, April 17, 2009

Pickpocket -- the solitude of a thief

Director: Robert Bresson, 1959.

Watching Pickpocket is a demanding experience. Bresson is a French director who epitomized the minimalist approach to movies where style dominates plot. He seeks to get to the very essence of a scene and leave everything else aside, including extended dialogue. Here he worked from his own screenplay and put in just enough narrative for a compelling story.

Bresson used non-professional actors in his movies and never used them in more than one film. And he called them his "interpreters" or "models" rather than actors. Indeed, he tells them not to act, but to say their lines unemotionally, with minimal theatricality. Here, he also keeps them from smiling. By avoiding close-ups and extensive use of muscial score, he seeks to avoid manipulating the audience. Indeed, he tries to keep them apart from the main characters, thereby minimizing our identification with them and bringing a sense of unease to our viewing. In a sense, this is itself manipulative, but he is doing it to make us work at feeling for ourselves what he is trying to convey.

The story is simple. Michel (Martin LaSalle) is an unemployed and disaffected young intellectual, who may have just come out of prison. Bresson paints very few backstory details, so much is left to the interpretation of the viewer. He goes to the horse race-track to pick someone's pocket and gets caught by the police. Yet, without evidence they let him go. We see him as a thief right from the start. But he is lacking in the "art" of pickpocketry.

Although his friend Jacques (Pierre Leymarie) is trying to help him with contacts of potential employers, Michel does not want to follow up on these. He feels he is superior to that. Further, when he goes to see his mother, he meets Jeanne (Marika Green), a young single neighbor of hers. But, unexpectedly, he won't go into see her. Instead, he gives Jeanne money for his mom. Bresson leaves this unexplained, but this may illuminate a later, subtle, detail.

Instead of taking up Jacques' offer of help, Michel becomes obsessed with stealing, picking pockets. When he finds a professional thief, he attaches himself to him, becoming his apprentice. Kassagi, who plays this thief, was an actual "sleight-of-hand" stage magician, and so some of the thievery tricks shown come from his stage act. There is a montage where these two work with a third pickpocket to hit multiple marks on a train and at a station. This scene is a breathtaking picture of the virtuosity of the thief.

In Bresson's film, Michel is not just a thief but the Thief, an archetype of the criminal. He is a lost soul in transit, a loner with few friends. His solitude and emotional ambivalence is one of the themes of Pickpocket. In an interview, Bresson said, "I wanted people to feel the atmosphere that surrounds a thief. . . . That, and the terrible solitude that is a thief's prison." Michel communicates this solitude perfectly, pushing away those few acquaintances that he has.
Bresson also uses interesting cinematography to make us feel this emotional prison. His framing hems people in. There are multiple lingering shots of doors, open and closed. Michel's hovel of an apartment remains unlocked, without a lock, with the door ajar. This perhaps pictures the freedom that he can choose to embrace. Instead, Michel is already imprisoned in his immoral desire to steal. And that can only lead to actual locked doors.

Other critics have seen the pickpocket's hand metaphorically. The hand reaching out to take a wallet or a watch shows Michel's desire to come close to a person but also the fear of doing so. Alongside his desire to be caught, dwells a desire for judgment and hence an affirmation of existence. This may be reaching a little, but certainly Bresson brings a sense of Dostoyevsky to the film. Roger Ebert has seen echoes of "Crime and Punishment" in Pickpocket, where the protagonist needs money to realize his dream and thinks other should supply it.

Early in the film, Michel voices his philosophy: "Can we not admit that certain skilled men gifted with intelligence, talent or even genius, and thus indispensable to society, rather than stagnate, should be free to disobey laws in certain cases?" He is referring to himself and his belief that he is superior to most men. In his superiority and his obvious need, he sees no issue with petty theft. He believes he will do it only until he gets his feet on the ground. Yet, the police inspector to whom he speaks believes otherwise. Once started there is no stopping.

Obviously, the Bible warns against stealing. One of the Ten Commandments is, "You shall not steal" (Exod. 20:15). The admonition against stealing is repeated in the New Testament (Matt. 19:18). It is an immoral act that is judged, both on earth and in heaven. That is clear.

Michel's question of stealing when in need strikes a little deeper. If a person has no job and no food, is it still wrong to steal? Does survival trump ethics? It is easy to say it is more important to retain our integrity by remaining honest and exploring all possible avenues. But it simply pushes the question one step away. If all avenues dry up, what to do then? Biblically, we might say, with Paul, God will provide all our needs in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:19). And that is true, but it will take faith to hear this. And it does sound trite. Trite but true.

But Michel was not stealing truly for survival. He simply was not prepared to work like other men. He had an inflated ego. He saw himself as more valuable than the marks he hit on. This, of course, is anti-biblical. His value is no more and no less, in the eyes of God, than the victims he preyed on. All have been made in the image of God, and all have been offered the opportunity of redemption by the sacrifice of Jesus.

Despite the darkness of the plot material and the disruptive nature of the method, Bresson leaves us with a glimpse of hope at the end. Michel finally realizes his emotional imprisonment and sees his soulmate. He understands that the route to this revelation was tortuous and twisted. Yet much in life is like this. The importance is finding hope and clinging to it. This final scene blends emotive acting and a synchronized score to underscore the power of hope.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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