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Michael Brooke <email@example.com>
Probably the most influential of Robert Bresson's trio of masterpieces from the Fifties (the other two being *A Man Escaped* and, of course, *Diary of a Country Priest*). *Pickpocket* sowed its seeds of influence in the minds of any number of film artists -- Jean-Pierre Melville most notably (who despised Bresson, apparently), whose *Le Samourai* was a mighty struggle against this film . . . and, most completely, writer-director Paul Schrader, who, you'll recall, wrote the *Taxi Driver* screenplay, which was another story about a loner on the outside of societal norms. And it goes without saying that Schrader's *American Gigolo*, which he also directed, is a virtual rewrite of *Pickpocket*, right down to the egregiously plagiarized finale.
The subject of Bresson's film is not nearly as sexy a conception as Schrader's gigolo, though the milieu is equally as sleazy. Instead of preening Richard Gere, we get acting novice Martin LaSalle as the Pickpocket, who wears one suit through the entire film. (Schrader obviously thought he was being clever by giving Gere a large closet stuffed with designer suits). LaSalle lives in a crumbly walk-up flat in Paris, where his books gather dust and the baseboards hide his humble stash of francs and the occasional wristwatch. He has few friends and is too ashamed to visit his dying mother (I won't spoil the reason why). The only pleasure he derives is from his compulsive work as a pickpocket, and it is in these scenes that Bresson stuns us with his martinet control of both narrative pacing and camera placement. The director lovingly shows us the subtle skills of the street thief: the creeping hands, the split-second scams (such as lifting a wallet from a man's suit breast-pocket while standing next to him and pretending to read a newspaper), the choreographed celerity of movement when the thief works with his partners in crime. There's one sequence that follows LaSalle and his two accomplices from a train station all the way to the train, in which they lift about 15 wallets and the occasional purse. The camera-work and editing here is nothing less than sheer mastery -- a ballet of thievery. And let it also be said that Bresson is no slouch when it comes to suspense. It's an intimate and sweaty suspense: will LaSalle's fingers, as they slowly reach into a purse, be noticed?
As might be expected from a French director of the period, there's also plenty of philosophizing to be found here, and in this case, the philosophy is actually pretty interesting. The movie takes as its intellectual parents the ubermensch riff by Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment". LaSalle asks the cop who's on his trail if society's "supermen", even if they choose to be thieves, should not only be let alone, but even respected as an overall benefit to society. (Thus sprach Kenneth Lay!) Obviously, we can mull that over ourselves, but in the meantime, Bresson is not particularly impressed with the "decent" elements of society. The cop is a pompous blow-hard who can offer LaSalle no alternative to his criminality. Bresson is more or less saying that modern society is contemptible: your acceptance of that thesis, and the importance you place on the occasional 100 francs getting lifted from an overfed bourgeois, will ultimately determine your acceptance of this film.
But perhaps its style will bog you down. As per usual, Bresson breaks virtually every rule of the movies. The use of non-actors in the main roles engenders both assets and liabilities: while the avoidance of the typical actors' nonsense is a definite asset, the liabilities occur when Bresson asks his "interpreters" to finally, well, act. There are a few scenes here where the incompetence of LaSalle (he eventually became a fine actor, but he was virtually plucked off the street by Bresson in 1958) will make you cringe, especially when LaSalle is supposed to be angry with someone. There IS something to be said for professionals -- even professional actors. And if none of this puts you off, perhaps Bresson's perverse narrative style -- including scenes in which a character writes down on a piece of paper the following narrative action, to be followed by the character READING what he has just written down, and climaxed by the character DOING just what he wrote and said he was going to do -- will make you scratch your head and mutter something about the arty pretensions of French directors.
And your comments would certainly be justified in Bresson's later productions. But in *Pickpocket*, I feel, the narrative precision, lack of bloat (the movie is 75 minutes long), and broader philosophical questions coalesce into a stringent masterpiece that must finally win your respect. Besides: you gotta love a movie about a pickpocket who never bothers to lock, or even close, his own front door. See? Bresson can even be funny.
8 stars out of 10.
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