Pickpocket (1959)

by | Feb 9, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Pickpocket (1959)

Starring:  Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, Pierre Leymarie, Jean Pelegri
Studio:  Criterion
Video:  1.33:1 Full Frame, B&W
Audio:  DD French Mono
Subtitles: English
Extras:  Paul Schrader Introduction (14 min); Audio Commentary w/ James Quandt; The Models of “Pickpocket” (52 min); Cinepanorama (6 min); Q&A on Pickpocket (13 min); Kassagi (13 min); Theatrical Trailer
Length:  75 minutes
Rating:  ***1/2

Pickpocket, a film written and directed by Robert Bresson, tells the story of a man who is drawn to petty theft and encouraged by his belief that he belongs to a class of “supermen” who are above the law.  In the preface to the film, the viewer is given a glimpse ahead in what is described as “the nightmare of a young man whose weaknesses lead him to commit acts of theft for which nothing destined him… [This] brings together two souls who may never have met.”  The main character, Michel, has an expressionless look, committed and intense, yet anxious and forlorn.  He’s detached and unfeeling.  The only way he keeps himself alive is through his thieving.  He narrates some of the story and in a few sequences that are considered to be unique (or popularized by Bresson) he writes what has occurred, speaks it aloud, and then it is shown to the viewer.  Early on in the film he is arrested, but let loose.  Rather than end his career, he hones his skills by practice and gets a nice boost when he meets up with a fellow in crime who shows him the tricks of the trade.  When the heat is on he changes locale, but he develops another passion–a young woman.  Though he tries to go straight, he cannot resist the lure of the quick poach.  Though much of the film lacks emotion in the performances, other editing and directing techniques are used to provoke viewer sympathy.  However, in the final scenes, the stopper is unplugged and the emotion pours through–leaving the viewer somewhat puzzled.

Commentary by Paul Schrader includes the discussion of unique choices in the style of the film that makes it a standout in its day.  He also suggests a few ideas on intent that could be debated, but will possibly require multiple viewings/viewer polling to sort out.   A few key facts make this film very different than most movies.  Bresson makes it a habit to select non-actors for his films and never uses the same person in another film.  He does not want to give them the chance to “act.”  Along with this, he insisted on multiple takes (often with no more than a single line of dialogue) until the actor can repeat words in the most natural way.  In the interviews with the performers, they often call themselves interpreters or models–a very true descriptor for their role in the movie.

All the actors have a fondness for Bresson and describe the experience with him as life-changing.  In an interview with Bresson himself, he explains that he was going for a feeling, a particular milieu, where the viewer would be a part of the atmosphere.  Tight framing was often employed and kept the character covered.  Others featured in the extras comment on his ability to portray characters that are detached from the world and reside in their own solitude.  Jean-Pierre Ameris proposes an apt metaphor for the film–a hand reaching out, a desire to come closer, but the fear to be closer and the desire of being caught.

The extras on the disc are excellent.  The fact that someone went round the world to locate the main actors and interview them is impressive and their commentary is highly enlightening.  And don’t miss the entertaining sleight-of-hand performance by Kassagi in 1962. 

– Brian Bloom

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