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More interesting than any individual film, it's Bresson's philosophy
that I feel is worth examining. He's all about striving, the question
is what for? If it's purity, as most would agree, and purity always
seems like something to aspire to, is it a purity that we can take as a
base for living?
I don't think I will have conclusions before Balthazar, perhaps his most famous. Already, since Diary of a Priest, I can see him moving in a direction, growing that philosophy. Even more sparse, even more laconic, removes flourish and leaves bare floors so that we endure something being revealed in the pacing. That's fine. More revealing is another trajectory being delineated, human- based.
It's once more about a lone youth who struggles with a life that suffocates. In Diary he was a pious young priest who wanted absolute sincerity in the face of life; but people were complicated beings, the journey caused spiritual torment, questions of angst abounded. In Man Escaped the same youth becomes a prisoner, also endures a life of anguish, but now endures quietly, without torment and piety. It was Bresson peeling away the romanticizing of suffering of Diary, what was left was simply the work of breaking free from that prison- world, stoicism in place of romanticism.
So what does he do in this next one? The same youth once more, but now he's not bound by duty to truth or has any work set out before him. Now he's free to wander the world which the man in Escaped had struggled to break free to. Without an intellectual or other struggle before him, he's simply awash with time. He's stifled by the freedom, he has no place. He perceives himself as a man of lofty talents, possibly a genius, but wastes these talents in being a pickpocket around town who won't even go see his dying mother. He always comes and goes from his tiny apartment to no real purpose.
Observant viewers will note the equation of pickpocketing as presented in the film, an elaborately precise choreography of hands and motions, with Bresson's own filmmaking. Film lore touts him as pure and simple as if that simplicity is conquered without effort, in truth he's all about the meticulous timing and moving of exact pieces. His favorite tool is exactly this game of hide and show that controls what we see; for example a scene like in Man Escaped where the new cellmate is introduced off-camera, we don't know who our man is talking to until we turn to see. He does it here too, often by having characters turn and leave, questions hanging, creating gap and resonance. He's the opposite of natural.
Back to the conundrum expressed at the beginning however; if this is pure, what does it strive purely for?
The only answer I get here is that we no longer have a man who is trying to understand life, or someone who works towards an end, these selves have been shed. Now we have someone who endures, but has no idea exactly what or what for. It's Bresson inching towards the same cessation that he strives for visually. What stands before him now is what he sketches in the opening intertitle; something pushes the man from the inside.
He bangles this all up at the end, and I believe that looking back he would probably have been unsatisfied himself. He reverts back to his romanticism where the tormented young man has love reserved for him, but a wistful love that doesn't feel earned, there's simply nothing that rings true about her infatuation with him. This is Eva Green's aunt by the by.
So this has done its job, shed one self and one set of conundrums and replaced them with another. Onwards to his next, which looks like another draft of the same philosophy, and then Balthazar is around the corner. I already believe I disagree with Schrader.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I love French. To me it's the most musical of languages. I can mostly
understand it, as long as there are subtitles, and I love that French
films exercise my mind.
So the language was mostly what kept me engaged in this very strange film.
Martin LaSalle is coldly reptilian as the master pickpocket. His bland expression belies a viper-like precision in capturing billfolds and purses. Watching him work is shocking and chilling.
What bogs the film down is the stilted and plodding dialog. Mouths move but emotions don't. It gets tiresome fast.
What to make of the beguiling Marika Green? When she finally falls for the pickpocket, after he has promised her he won't steal anymore but lands in prison for resorting to his old tricks, she descends from being pathetic to ridiculous.
Glad I saw and heard this but it wasn't really fun.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I was a bit surprised by Robert Bresson's 'Pickpocket.' Unlike many of
the 1950s/1960s European films that I've seen of late, this film is not
concerned with slow, meditative long-takes or particularly exquisite
visuals. Even the performances, with many of the actors being complete
amateurs, are almost deadpan and expressionless, allowing all the
viewer's attention to be fixed upon the spiritual regeneration of the
film's petty criminal protagonist, Michel (Martin LaSalle). The pace of
the film actually moves relatively quickly, only dwelling on any one
scene as long as it needs to, and so one never finds their own
attention wavering. For this reason, but also because this is a
masterfully-executed picture, 'Pickpocket' would make an ideal
introduction for film buffs interested in expanding their cinematic
palette towards more older and foreign-language films. Indeed, after
hearing so many excellent things about the director, this was my first
film from Robert Bresson, and I'm now quite excited about seeing more
of what he has to offer.
The film follows its main character, Michel, as he turns to pickpocketing to sustain himself. He undoubtedly is an fairly intelligent and capable young man, and could certainly earn a large enough salary through legitimate employment, though he is strangely drawn to a life of crime, as though fate intended that path for him all along. A police inspector (Jean Pélégri) very strongly suspects Michel of committing crimes, and their occasional confrontations are a delicate balance of threats and bluffs, with the young man all but admitting his guilt, though not quite implicitly enough to warrant an arrest without any further evidence. We get the sense that Michel subconsciously wants to be caught, if only to finally end his overwhelming compulsion to steal. At a racetrack, he notes that a suspiciously-wealthy man may very well be an undercover policeman ("He didn't even bet on the winning horse"), and yet he endeavours to pick his pocket anyway, not even flinching in surprise when a pair of metal handcuffs is suddenly clapped onto his wrist.
'Pickpocket' also includes a love story that is hardly developed at all, and you get the feeling that this is exactly how Bresson wanted it. Jeanne (Marika Green), who lives in the apartment above Michel's mother (Dolly Scal), is the absolute embodiment of innocence, and so Michel isolates himself from her, only realising in the final moments how much he yearns for her warm touch, memorably proclaiming in the film's last seconds "Oh, Jeanne, what a strange way I had to take to meet you!" Michel refuses to visit his dying mother, feeling guilty and ashamed that he once stole from her. Meanwhile, his petty acts of criminality take on a more organised style as he comes to know a professional pickpocket (credited only as Kassagi) who collaborates with Michel and teaches him the numerous devious tricks of the trade.
Of all the scenes in 'Pickpocket,' none are more memorable than the actual pickpocketing sequences. Though Bresson warns at the beginning of the film that he had no intentions to direct a thriller, we can't help but hold our breath in awed silence as Michel plants himself within inches of his victim, and, keeping his grim, emotionless face pointing dead ahead, fumbles into the purses and pockets of his host to secure his reward. There is one absolutely magnificent scene arguably one of the greatest ever filmed where Michel and his two accomplices set to work at a railway station, working with sublime teamwork and precision to acquire the valuables of multiple passers-by, with one conspirator acting as a distraction, the other making the steal, and the third walking away with the goods. It is a perfectly-timed montage of close-up images, the perpetrators working with the grace and skill of a magician, and the camera capturing every glorious moment of it.
This film is where my perspective of film-making took a sharp and very abrupt right turn towards a new appreciation of the art of making films. Robert Bresson is absolutely brilliant. His vision of how to make movies is so detailed and intricate I find it hard to believe how I ever made a movie without thinking about what he has done in his films to make his movies. In fact I'm ashamed to admit I've ever made films after seeing this film. To listen to how his actors describe him is like listening to a child describe how they were raised by their grandfather. With awe, with compassion, with respect that cannot be sown between two peers. Between two peers comes a rivalry very hard to overcome, but with Bresson and his movie and his actors, he is allowed to take his "models" by the hand and lead them through the movie on blind faith alone. To consider a movie where the director took a cast of actors who has almost exclusively never acted before, and told them only where to look in between delivering their lines while positioned at such and such a point is why I have reconsidered the way I make movies. Twenty, thirty, forty, sometimes fifty takes later Bresson would still be looking for a glimpse, a nod, or a movement that expresses what he feels inside him, and here I am telling people to do stuff over there while I fiddle with the lens a little more. I am in debt to his work. Robert Bresson was the father of the French new Wave and the epitome of film-making. Also be sure to watch A Man Escaped. Got this film at the University library.
Having only seen Au Hasard Balthazar from Bresson beforehand, of which
I was disappointed by, I had still retained some interest in his work,
despite his often sterile approach to filmmaking. Unfortunately, while
still being very good, Pickpocket is not that film I've been hoping
for. At just over 70 minutes long, it's strange how it skims so much
detail and still feels slow, though is certainly no torture. The core
of the film is Michel, as played by Martin LaSalle, who delivers a
diary-esque narration throughout, which offers the story too much
exposition, rendering all supporting characters to feel as if
strangers. The narration details how he feels and what he's doing as he
does it (in past tense - almost as if a police interrogation or a
confession of other sorts), however, LaSalle's controlled subtle
expressions reveals none of this, leaving us with a protagonist deeper
than his loose fitting suit and cold stare. As the film skips and skims
big details, such as an ostensibly important 15 minutes conversation to
2 whole years spent travelling on the run, the narrative appears to
present all that the protagonist can remember, rather than an objective
view of the story. However, this style alienates the viewer, and
distances from investment for Michel rather than empathising with his
Pickpocket's most exciting moments are the sleight of hand theft sequences, these shots developing the protagonist far greater than his interaction with other characters, as the camera lends Michel's eyes as a mere closeup of a watch on a stranger's hand becomes thrilling. The cinematography keeps a simple wide frame throughout, being purely observant, as the film uses subtle careful sounds of footsteps, rustling of clothes and hands gently touching objects giving it a greater sense of suspense than a score with a pace. The brief melodramatic music that dips in and out feels inappropriate, as does the rather primitive editing method of fading to black and then fading in to the next scene. The straight faces and suits is reminiscent of film noir, though these characters are even more petty than the icons, while it has the crisp realism of neo-noir. The film really captures the essence of Paris. It's certainly an interesting film about moral justification, even if I don't feel like it works in its favour in the end due to its imbalance of over simplification and ambiguity. The film feels like the foundation for an archetype but there's also many missed opportunities for tighter storytelling. I shall still explore Bresson until I discover his masterpiece.
Michel (Martin LaSalle, the French equivalent of Montgomery Clift) is
released from jail after serving a sentence for thievery. His mother
dies and he resorts to pickpocketing as a means of survival.
I freely confess I was not very familiar with the work of Robert Bresson. By which I mean I had not seen a single thing he did. This month (July 2013) that will be rectified, and this was the perfect place to start. Whether or not "Pickpocket" is a masterpiece is unclear, but it is Bresson's best-known work, and beautifully shot.
I love how this film inspired Paul Schrader, who then used a scene not once but twice in his own work. That is pretty powerful. The film as a whole is great, with the focus on the hands and the use of great black and white (apparently Bresson's preferred medium, as he used it through the 1960s if not later).
Although a clear piece of cinematic art with its slow and detailed
sequences, I feel I have missed the genius within Pickpocket. When
watching, nothing grabbed me in the same way as A Man Escaped and I
finished the film appreciating its beauty and form, without feeling
I must point out that it was not that I thought that this was a bad film. Stylistically I agree that this film is fantastically shot in black and white, it was just that I feel that there is something I've missed.
Undeniably the theft sequences are blindingly brilliant and I really felt myself leaning in to watch as hands exchanged wallets with the deftest of touches. I also felt that tension was built up fantastically with the use of sound and imagery. I thought that the ending was well measured and summarised the film well but it was the story as a whole that never grew on me enough and I felt disappointed at points with the way it unfolded.
I hope, however, to watch this film again and perhaps more times after that because I sense that it was what I missed as opposed to what the film lacked. For me, perhaps, it will age like wine. I certainly hope so.
For now... 6/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The year is 1959 and a bunch of aspiring filmmakers reunited under the
sign of the New Wavelet plans to rejuvenate French cinema. To achieve
their goals, one of the advocated solutions is to shoot their works in
the street on natural location. One of their darlings Robert Bresson
has the same idea but with one major difference: he's a whole better
than any of them including François Truffaut and Jean Luc "God Ard" and
his contribution to the Seventh Art is much more valuable than theirs'.
After having told a true story of an escape lived by a prison inmate during the Second World War with "Un Condamné à Mort s'est Echappé" (1956), Bresson chose for his next film to shoot the everyday life of a pickpocket. In an interview from 1960, Bresson cleverly noticed that the 1956 film began in prison and ended in liberty whereas it's the contrary for "Pickpocket". Keeping a narrative process from "Journal d'Un Curé De Campagne" (1951) which is to show a written page from a textbook read by a voice-over while the following sequence shows us the action, the filmmaker introduces to us Michel's career as a thief, the techniques and processes employed by a pickpocket to steal his victims' wallets and watches and important characters who try to make him come back to the "normal world" like Jeanne. From the beginning, Michel is a typical "Bressonian" hero. It means that he lives on the fringe of society but unlike other Bresson heroes, his intellectual ideas prompt him to claim his stake and he's proud not to be part of the crowd whereas other characters in Bresson's work become unconventional figures in spite of them like the young priest in "Journal d'Un Curé De Campagne" or dropouts such as Yvon later in "l'Argent" (1983). As he says: "a few superiors human beings should find themselves above the laws". In another extent, the notions of sin and redemption run throughout the work until the very last sequence which is likely to make many viewers' imagination work. While I'm on this last point, Bresson never wanted the viewers to be lazy in front of his films but wished to arise stimulation among them. It means that you can think what you want about Michel's dangerous life and the famous last sequence.
Bresson said that his film was especially a film of looks and gestures and he was right to think it. The sequences dealing with stealing are shot with care and in a somewhat distant manner. One of the filmmaker's goals was also to make us feel the loneliness which traps a thief. On this point, Michel is locked in his convinced theories and his resolute actions which means he can't listen to the people who are his contrary and he wanders all alone in the streets of Paris. His solitude is enhanced by the cramped attic in which he lives. Then Bresson perfectly managed to capture the feeling invoked when he robs someone and he well fulfilled his pledges. When Michel goes into action, a feeling of danger mingled with pleasure invades the screen and it is doubled when Michel "works" with other professional thieves. The apex finds itself in the station where all these thefts end up forming a dance. These key sequences as well as Jeanne's, the police officer's and Michel's friend Jacques attempts to make him see reason are dovetailed to give a highly-elliptical, limpid film. Like a good proportion of Bresson's works, it improves with each extra viewing.
A documentary about this film was shot a few years ago in which the models talked about their roles in Bresson's magnum opus and how they changed their lives forever. Martin Lasalle currently lives in Mexico city and he's not the cold, young man one could expect to see. He's charming and funny.
Probably,I can forget all cinematographic masterpieces,without a few
exceptions if I will lose hope to live at all and be in total solitude.
Bresson's "Pickpocket" is certainly one of such exceptional works.
Between this film's mysterious instability of meanings(is it really an adaptation of "Crime and Punishment" or only it tells a story of young French men with curious behavior, freely reading in English and with Christ-like mask?)and complete solidness of the form(light,rhythmic composition and laconic plot development)one will be able to find what he sincerely need in the moment of despair. It may be called providence,or miracle in quite ordinary life. Salvation of a man, who find at last the hope and meaning to live and die. All is like a dream, but the dream is more truthful than miserable life. Without any sentiment,Bresson gave us only a hint, which is itself miraculous. Luis Malle,who was an assistant director in Bresson's previous film "The Man escaped",said that the release of "Pickpocket" is one of the four or five great days in the history of cinema(in "Robert Bresson" ed. by James Quandt,p.570). I agree with him. About 10 years ago,one Russian student in the class of scenario said to me that this film is that of genius. Another student,his rival said, "Andrei Rublyov" is so in all the history of Russian cinema. They are right, and I agree with them.
Greatness of spiritual artwork depends on the purity of author's faith in the moment of its creation. Because, as Nikolai Berdjaev wrote, "human nature is creative,because he is the image and the likeness of God". And Tarkovsky wrote, of all the human activities the creation of artwork is the most unselfish. Michel's pickpocketing in this film seems to be metaphor or image of human creation as a religious,unselfish activity.
Looks like there are a few negative reviews from misguided people who
thought that this was supposed to be an adaptation of Dostoyevski's
"Crime and Punishment". Let me say this slowly...
There are many allusions to C&P which were quite deliberate. But don't expect it to go any further than that. Instead we get a very complex & original work which, if anything, is more like Faust by Goethe. (But don't expect Faust either.)
The camera-work is primo. It's very fluid and keen, capturing so much in each motion, much like Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece "Rope" but even better in many scenes. And unlike many of the other French "nouvelle vague" directors of the 50s-60s who felt obligated to be weird in order to make a statement, this film was done very lucidly. We don't get gratuitous weirdness like long scenes of the backs of people's heads (Godard). Instead, this is more subtle in its approach to art. It's meticulous and very finely detailed, and that speaks for itself.
My only criticism is that the ending didn't seem believable to me. I think it happened too quickly, whereas the rest of the film was given ample time to breathe. So I was kinda left saying, "huh? where did that come from?" But I dunno, maybe I missed something. Overall this is some pretty good stuff. It's my first Bresson film, and it renews my faith in French movies of that period.
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