Pickpocket (1959): Robert Bresson’s Masterpiece

Using Feodor Dostoevsky’s seminal novel “Crime and Punishment” as an inspiration, Pickpocket is French director Robert Bresson’s masterful investigation of crime and redemption.

The film tells the story of an arrogant youth named Michel (Martin Lassale), who spends his days learning the art of picking pockets in the streets, subway cars, and train stations of Paris.

As Michel grows bolder and more adept at his crime, so too grows his fear that his luck is about to run out. Despite the pleadings of his sick mother (Dolly Scal) and the lovely Jeanne (Marika Green) to return to the world of the honorable, Michel is consumed by his compulsion to steal.

Caught after his initial attempt fails, Michel is arrested, which makes him think of the rights and wrongs of the act of theft. After his mother’s death, his close friends try to offer solace and advice, but Michel chooses to return to crime, adopting a vet mentor (played by Kassagi). When his crime partners are arrested, Michel escapes France, leaving behind the woman who loves him, not realizing she is carrying his child.

After various efforts, he is arrested and sent to jail. In the film’s memorably touching final moment, as the two lovers embrace through the bars, he tells Jeanne: “What strange way I have traveled to find you at last.”

Tautly staged and stylistically rigorous, “Pickpocket” is a mesmerizing philosophical film that reveals Bresson at his most enigmatic (and nonjudgmental) and restrained mode in a film that illuminates both the road to crime and the road to redemption.

The black-and-white movie is only 75-minute-long, but every shot and second count. Minimalist in terms of style, which is interesting for a director who began his career as painter, and disciplined in terms of approach, Bresson works economically, sticking to clarity and simplicity of exposition, while embracing a form of cinema that is spiritual.

“Pickpocket” doesn’t claim to understand completely its protagonist and his motivations, which makes the meditative film all the more intriguing and open to interpretations.

Paying equal attention to the criminal’s psychology and inner feelings as well as to the larger society that creates such criminals, Bresson uses voice-overs by Lassale to express his intimate thoughts as they are written in a personal diary.

Bresson (1901-1999) was one of the first French directors to be recognized as genuine auteur by Cahiers du Cinema critics, who later founded the French New Wave. Though his output is small in terms of quantity, most of his films are masterpieces that have retained their artistic and philosophical merits.

Bresson’s Impact

Among other American directors, Paul Schrader was highly influenced by this and other Bresson films, inspiring him  to write an analytic book, “Transcendental Style on Film: Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer,” and to structure the narrative of “Taxi Driver” (which Scorsese directed in a bravura style in 1976) as a diary that Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle writes and narrates throughout the picture.

Several scenes in Schrader’s “American Gigolo,” starring Richard Gere, also pay tribute to Bresson’s work.

Credits

Lux Production
Produced by Agnes Delahaie
Directed, written by Robert Bresson, based on Dostoevsky’s novel
Cinematography: L.H. Burel
Editor: Raymond Lamy
Art Direction: Pierre Charbonnier
Music: Jean-Baptiste Lully