Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Robert Bresson
B&W, 75 minutes, 1959

Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket is a strange little film, especially so when placed within the French New Wave Film movement and alongside a similar film like Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.

The resemblances between Pickpocket and Breathless are small but perhaps intended. The protagonist’s name is Michel in both films; both men are criminals; both men show a disconcerting restlessness. But there the similarities invite, in fact demand, contrasts. Michel the pickpocket is a quiet, almost shy man; he seems to have literary ambitions, appears well-educated, and his own restlessness is a 75 minute-long dance of eyes looking down, staring, challenging, and swiftly surveying his environment. Michel from Breathless provides his own score, dialog, and special sound effects in his hyped-up, nervous, non-stop physical motion and during the commission of his violent crimes.

I don’t know if there are any intended comparisons and contrasts that one or both director is making. Each film should stand alone, even if the film-maker consciously adds some reference to another film, actor, or director. The French New Wave directors all seem to share the trait of paying homage to one another and their influences within their films.

Pickpocket is a striking anomaly within the artistic movement and the genre of criminal films. It closely matches its protagonist’s quiet, his subtle eye movements, and the slow-motion revelation of each pocket picking maneuver. Bresson wrote a moral to his story that is shown before the film titles roll and the moral comes true by the time Fin rolls onto the screen. There is no irony to Bresson’s treatment of the people or the subject.

Like the soft classical musical score, Pickpocket’s story unfolds via the written confession of Michel. We see Michel’s hand actually writing the words he then narrates, almost in real time to the handwriting, without the verbal choppiness that this technique so often engenders in other films. Martin LaSalle, who plays Michel, is adverse to any kind of animation. His acting is so low key that is seems primitive, like the real people who are used in Italian realist films to stand in for professional actors. The Paris, city-life crowds move and flow around him and he looks at them without emotion or interest.

The first few minutes of the film set Michel in a nervous, thrilling relation to the people surrounding him as he challenges himself to steal, to become a pickpocket—there is none of the violence or superiority of Breathless’ Michel. Pickpocket portrays nervousness and tension by using direct gaze as Michel looks into the eyes of each potential victim and they stare back into his eyes. The scenes play out uncomfortably long, the mutual stares should produce more hostility or discomfort in the characters than is shown on the screen. Such direct visual confrontation should be produce some emotional reactions but, oddly, it does not. Bresson may be making a point about the ennui or disinterest of his contemporary Parisians; he may staying true to the emotional temperament of Michel whose story this is, who is narrating and shown writing each scene.

Michel’s reasons for becoming a pickpocket are as muted and pedestrian as his apparent demure personality. He seems to be espousing a Nietzschean philosophy with the overturning of morals by what Nietzsche described as “The Superman.” The people to whom he shares these ideas with are not outraged, they seem as quietly intellectual as Michel. In fact, Michel neglects his reading and presumed writing as he descends further into crime as is demonstrated by a police inspector who runs a finger across the dust on the cover of one of Michel’s books. Bresson has Michel-as-narrator/writer propose that he is having "nightmares" from which he has awoken. It is ironic that Michel's motives are as subject to debate as any other philosophical proposition.

The heralded “second soul” of the pre-title-sequence moral and Michel’s own writing belongs to a woman name Jeanne who lives in the apartment house where Michel’s dying mother resides. Not until the end of the movie will these two characters fulfill the destiny Bresson (or Fate, if you will) have laid out for them.

There is a striking feature of the complex personality of Michel that is especially exposed in his relations with Jeanne. Her character betrays an obvious potential romantic interest in Michel but he cannot or refuses to see it. The same point is raised by Michel several times when he cannot remember where he has seen certain faces that pass him in the crowds where he is working. This non-recognition is very strange for a character whose only lively interest is in surveillance. Why is Michel so blind to what should be most obvious to him?

Bresson shows no interest in the mechanics of pickpocketing. The camera slows down the action as the stolen object passes from owner to thief and from hand to hand; this seems to be a contrivance to show the audience what would, in ‘real life’ happen very quickly, almost invisiby. After all, pickpockets wouldn’t exist if they are slow-handed and as obvious as Michel and his friends. The fact that Bresson writes for Michel a two-year-long criminal spree in Milan, then Rome, and finally London means that Bresson/Michel have little interest in criminality, but also to show that Michel is very good at what he has chosen to do. But if he is so successful in three countries, why is he so easily caught at the end of the film? Is it a form of 'bad luck' that Michel previously invokes as ‘good luck’ (more than skill) in one of his earlier, successful robbery attempts?

Pickpocket ends true to the moral at the film’s beginning. Michel is caught and imprisoned by a man he at first failed to recognize was a police inspector. Does he invite his own capture, unconsciously submit to justice and to reform? He is visited by Jeanne, who he once again sends away, not recognizing that she visits out of love for him. But in a letter, a piece of writing curiously enough, he comes to “see” that Jeanne has always loved him and that he is now prepared or becomes aware of his own love for her. The collision between his 'fate,' his love interest, his writing, and his vision make this moment both an emotional and intellectual whole.

One thing: this ending reminds me of Anthony Burgess’ novel, A Clockwork Orange, when it was republished with a previously missing ending—an ending that therefore did not make it into the much more notorious film by Stanley Kubrick of the same name. In the intended, but unpublished ending (the controversy over who cut the ending, author or publisher, has no bearing on this topic) to A Clockwork Orange, the violent young criminal is rehabilitated not by soulless and misguided social and scientific agencies and techniques. The boy in the book becomes aware of time passing; he falls in love with a girl his own age; they marry and start to have children—these events change the violent criminal into a respectable lower middle-class husband. I wonder how Burgess' more realistic ending would have fared with Kubrick and the social and cultural attitudes of the 1960s and 70s? Would Kubrick's generation have wanted the anti-hero of the film or the mended and middle-class (bourgeouis?) hero of the novel's recently published ending?

Far more than any philosophy that can explain Michel’s criminal beginnings and the end of this phase of his life, it is a middle-class, perhaps denigrated by supposedly more modern and sophisticated ideas—some would argue cynical and Nietzschean—conception of Love as a saving agency that brings us to the end of the lessons that Bresson has written into and directed in his quiet little film, Pickpocket.

** images from Wikipedia.com

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