Director: Robert Bresson
Screenplay: Robert Bresson
Stars: Martin La Salle (Michel), Marika Green (Jeanne), Jean Pélégri (L’inspecteur principal), Dolly Scal (La mere), Pierre Leymarie (Jacques), Kassagi (1er complice), Pierre Étaix (2ème complice), César Gattegno (Un inspecteur)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1959
Country: France
Pickpocket Criterion Collection Blu-ray
PickpocketIn a 1960 interview on the French television program Cinépanorama, writer/director Robert Bresson openly stated, “I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it.” This is a crucial sentiment and one that should be kept in mind when approaching Bresson’s work, which is often discussed in haughty academic terms as “austere,” “difficult,” and “minimalist.” Yet, the fact that Bresson’s films tend to be intimate character studies of isolated human beings struggling with the world around them suggests that he is aiming primarily at the viewer’s emotions. He wants you to feel what it is like to be a young priest struggling in a rigid, isolated community in his first masterpiece Diary of a Country Priest (1954), and in Pickpocket, which many argue is the pinnacle of his art, he wants you to experience the life of a lonely thief whose self-imposed isolation and criminality are one in the same.

Pickpocket is certainly one of Bresson’s most readily accessible films, at least at the narrative level, because it takes the basic plot structure of a crime thriller and intertwines it with a redemptive love story. Martin La Salle plays Michel, a young Parisian who has turned to thievery as a means of survival. At first operating completely on his own, he later teams up with two other professional thieves to work complex sleight-of-hand jobs in which they nimbly pilfer wallets, cash, watches, and the contents of purses all over the city.

It is a profitable life of crime and one that brings a kind of sly pleasure to Michel; it’s not for nothing that the scenes of thievery have been described by critics in sexual terms, with the final lifting of the wallet standing in as a kind of orgasm. Yet, it is ultimately an empty life, one that pays, but doesn’t fulfill. Michel’s real redemption lies with Jeanne (Marika Green), a young woman who lives next door to Michel’s dying mother. The love-as-redemption trope is certainly an old and arguably overused one, but Bresson breathes new life into it by setting it in a bleak, existential realm that turns love into the only true salvation. Bresson heightens the film’s prison ending into a moment of genuine transcendence; Michel’s body may be imprisoned, but his spirit is finally let free.

Pickpocket is arguably the film in which Bresson perfected his singular style, in which he eschewed traditional acting and referred to his actors as “models” (at the time it was so unusual that he felt the need to put a disclaimer at the beginning the film explaining it). He did not want his actors to emote or express anything directly, but rather just go through the physical motions, thus becoming blank slates onto which the audience could project their own meanings. It is an amazingly effective approach that works only because it’s not as extreme as it sounds; even though the actors are passive, they never come across as wooden or false. Perhaps this is just because the film invites so much projection from the viewer, but it may also be because the very nature of the material infuses itself into the actors’ words and actions, giving them a sense of life despite the lack of conventional “acting.”

Bresson also eschewed psychological explanations. Although there is an explanatory voice-over narration, we never know much about Michel’s past or why he turned to pickpocketing or even why he does certain things in the film itself. Like the flat acting style, Bresson wants us to fill in the gaps, to create our own meaning. In a way, this makes Pickpocket a highly personal film, not just for Bresson, but for each individual who sees it. Bresson’s style is certainly challenging and perhaps not even for all tastes, but for those who are willing to give themselves to it, it can be an immensely rewarding experience, as close to transcendental as the cinema could be.

Pickpocket Criterion Collection Blu-ray / DVD Combo Set

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioFrench Linear PCM 1.0 Monaural
  • Audio commentary by film scholar James Quandt
  • Video introduction by writer/director Paul Schrader
  • The Models of “Pickpocket” 2003 documentary by filmmaker Babette Mangolte
  • 1960 interview with Bresson, from the French television program Cinépanorama
  • “Q&A on Pickpocket” with actress Marika Green and filmmakers Paul Vecchiali and Jean-Pierre Améris fielding questions at a 2000 screening of the film
  • Footage of sleight-of-hand artist and Pickpocket consultant Kassagi from a 1962 episode of the French television show La piste aux étoiles
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • New essay by novelist and culture critic Gary Indiana
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJuly 15, 2014

    The new digital transfer of Pickpocket on Criterion’s Blu-ray was made from the original 35mm camera negative at Digimage in Paris, where it was also restored. Bresson’s beautiful compositions are perfectly rendered, and the film looks like it could have been made yesterday. Blacks are deep and rich, and contrast is outstanding throughout. Bresson didn’t use much extradiegetic music, so the majority of the soundtrack is composed of dialogue and subtle sound effects. The monaural soundtrack, mastered at 24-bit and digitally restored from the original negative and the 35mm magnetic tracks, sounds strong, with little in the way of ambient hiss or other artifacts.
    The screen-specific audio commentary by film scholar James Quandt is certainly worth a listen. He provides some valuable background information about Bresson and the making of the film, as well as some of his own personal insights and interpretations (he also isn’t afraid to criticize what he thinks doesn’t work, such as the relationship between Michel and the police investigator). Quandt never lets himself get carried away with his interpretations, though, as novelist Gary Indiana does in his highly questionable liner essay that Armond White so completely and thoroughly debunked back in 2005 in The New York Press as baseless revisionism that I won’t bother giving it the time of day here.

    The supplements begin with a video introduction by writer/director Paul Schrader, whose book on Dreyer, Bresson, and Ozu is one of the canonical works of film studies. Bresson’s films greatly inspired Schrader’s own films, particularly his screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), and he is both passionate and scholarly in discussing Pickpocket. The Models of “Pickpocket” is a fairly lengthy 2003 documentary by filmmaker Babette Mangolte in which he tracked down three of Pickpocket’s stars—Martin La Salle, Marika Green, and Pierre Leymarie—for new interviews. Other recent interview footage can be found in “Q&A on Pickpocket,” in which actress Marika Green and filmmakers Paul Vecchiali and Jean-Pierre Améris field questions at a 2000 screening of the film. Archival footage includes a five-minute interview with Bresson from a 1960 episode of the French television program Cinépanorama, as well as footage of sleight-of-hand artist and Pickpocket consultant Kassagi from a 1962 episode of the French television show La piste aux étoiles.

    Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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