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PICKPOCKET

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, Pierre Leymarie, Kassagi, Jean Pélegri
Director: Robert Bresson
Audio: French monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Studio: Criterion
Features: Paul Schrader introduction, commentary, The Models of Pickpocket, Bresson interview, trailer, Q&A on Pickpocket, La piste aux étoiles excerpt, essay
Length: 75 minutes
Release Date: November 8, 2005

"Do you believe in nothing?"

Film ****

Imagine a city immersed in a world-weary fatalism bred of resignation and despair.  Imagine a place where the streets are stained with the ghostly vestiges of forgotten men echoing through the annals of time.  Imagine the stagnation of a common people eking out their anonymous existence in an ultimately indifferent society.  Imagine such things, and you will have conjured up the nihilistic world of Robert Bresson's Parisian cityscape in Pickpocket.

Pickpocket is, like Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, a tale of crime and redemption.  Its central protagonist is Michel (Martin LaSalle), a young petty thief wandering the by-ways of Paris.  He is an empty shell of a person carrying out a dreary life devoid of significance.  Michel sits in his drab apartment, a spartan and virtual prison of solitude.  Without thievery, Michel's bleak life would be utterly without purpose.  Michel lives merely to steal, and he steals to live.  In his existential world, there is no god, no love, no meaning.  He believes in God for "three minutes." He doubts final judgment.  Lacking accountability, Michel feels no restraints by which to abide to the accepted behavioral mores of modern society.

Pickpocket offers a fairly straight-forward narrative.  Michel steals and then steals some more until he is eventually captured and imprisoned.  Only the love of a young and pure-hearted woman in the end offers the possibility of redemption for the young thief.  That woman is the lovely Jeanne (Marika Green), who once tended after Michel's sick mother.  As Jeanne was the angelic soul comforting Michel's mother in her final, passing hours, so Jeanne will be the caressing presence that will offer a cathartic release for Michel's emotional prison.  Yet this storyline is secondary to the atmosphere that Bresson wished to create, the empty and tragically lonely existence of a man withdrawn into a self-imposed isolation and a disenchantment with the rest of the world.

As Michel, Martin LaSalle strongly resembles a lean and hungry Henry Fonda.  But if the young Fonda's Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath was willing to endure poverty in a sentimental embrace of hope and the future, then LaSalle's Michel is his antithesis, a cold, distant, and uncaring soul.  Michel recognizes a certain futility in life.  He steals money not for want, as the money does not make him happy, nor does it improve his quality of life.  Instead, Michel hungers for the excitement the act provides him, the intoxicating affirmation that he lives, that he exists beyond the listless denizens with whom he shares this city of Paris.  For Michel, thievery becomes an art, an elaborate and complex waltz performed daily at the Gare de Lyon or perhaps the race track before an audience of hundreds, unmindful and unseeing.

If currency be an artifice contrived by society's founders, for Michel, it means nothing.  A plaything.  A string to pull to manipulate or torment others.  Nothing more.  It has no purpose beyond being a tool for seducement or control of the masses.  Circulated like a form of contagion, ultimately it is a concept as hollow and loveless as the coldly calculating men who so cherish it.

Michel's transgressions are spontaneous and unreflecting, performed with little thought given to the consequences, for in truth, Michel considers no such distinctions.  Like Camus' unapologetic Meursault (The Stranger), Reed's reptilian profiteer Harry Lime (The Third Man), or Sautet's cold and emotionless suitor Stephane (Un Coeur en Hiver), Michel acts simply as the thoughts occur to him.  If life is meaningless, then what does it matter what one does?  Michel chooses to ignore the polite rules and conventions of society; his actions are governed seemingly less by fear of how he will ultimately be judged and rather more by a dour Nietzschean outlook upon the essence of society's imperfect construct of reality.

Michel is not necessarily a contemptuous person, merely an indifferent one.  But is he so very different from those about him, those he haunts as they do him?  In a sense, Pickpocket might be construed as a condemnation of the insignificance of our vacant, daily meanderings.

Even so, perhaps Michel's outwardly non-determinist actions belie a greater longing within him.  Perhaps in the inner reaches of his soul, Michel truly wishes to be caught that he might be judged, that in such attention derived from a material or physical imprisonment, he might discover the guidance through which to overcome his own metaphysical and internal prison.  Michel may profess to a certain ennui, but he cannot entirely forsake his humanity, his need in the end for social acceptance, whether through the tenderness of a young woman or the forgiveness of a society long prey to his own spiritual wandering.

Highly condensed, cinematically efficient, masterfully edited, Pickpocket represents Bresson at his finest and most mature.  Part police procedural, part thriller, Pickpocket is in truth a romance, an embrace of the innate intimacy of thievery but more significantly, a story of transcendental redemption, the metamorphosis of even a man seemingly without social worth.

Video ** ½

Pickpocket is shown in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.  The transfer for this disc was made from a 35mm internegative.  Aside from mild wear and tear along the sides of the frame, the transfer offers solid clarity and contrast levels.  There is occasional fluctuation in the emulsion density but nothing out of the ordinary for an older black & white film.

Audio ** ½

The audio for Pickpocket was mastered from the original monaural soundtrack negative.  However, as with most Bresson films, dialogue is quite minimal.  There is almost no music except for a few key scenes, so Pickpocket is essentially silent cinema offering a montage of images and short scenes set to the busy ambient sounds of a Parisian cityscape.  What exists of the soundtrack has been filtered for extraneous hiss and other pops or crackles.

Features ****

Pickpocket arrives with a healthy dose of bonus features.  Viewers interested in learning more about Bresson and themes in his film should check out the audio commentary by James Quandt.  This film scholar discusses Bresson's symbolic images, dazzling montage style, and very deliberate editing.  Quandt also seems particularly keen on stressing a certain homoerotic or sensual nature in the very act of pickpocketing as depicted in the film.

The introduction (15 min.) by Paul Schrader describes how the writer-director's own script for Taxi Driver had been heavily influenced by Pickpocket.  This introduction is, however, best viewed as an epilogue, as it gives away key plot developments.  Schrader does provide a rather enthusiastic dissertation on the psychology of Pickpocket as well as a dissection of the film from an editing, narrative, and compositional viewpoint.  All in all, this is a highly informative featurette, almost a mini-lecture on filmmaking itself.

The Models of Pickpocket is a documentary (52 min.) offering interview segments with actors (or "models" as Bresson preferred to call them) from Pickpocket.  First up is Pierre Leymarie, who played Michel's young friend Jacques.  Leymarie discusses the apparent neutrality of Bresson's visual style, which often encouraged viewers to superimpose their own personal views upon the characters while interpreting Bresson's images.  Leymarie likens Bresson to a puppeteer, masterfully manipulating his players about.  Next, the documentary shifts to Austria for several sessions with Marika Green, still lovely after all these years.  She describes her fascination with Bresson and how he gently mentored her during Pickpocket, her first film as an actress.  Finally, the documentary tracks down the elusive Martin LaSalle in Mexico City.  LaSalle is more than happy to express his warm memories of working with Bresson.  Pleasantly, LaSalle and Green are more cheerful and optimistic than their screen personas for Pickpocket.

Bresson himself appears in a 1960 archival interview (6 min.) from the French television program Cinépanorama.  The director appears somewhat ill-at-ease and defensive, as though he were somehow situated under the glaring spotlight of a police grilling session.  Perhaps Bresson was merely expressing some of the isolationism that he wanted to communicate in Pickpocket.

Q&A on Pickpocket offers actress Marika Green and filmmakers Paul Vecchiali and Jean-Pierre Améris in a question-and-answer session (13 min.) following a screening of Pickpocket at the Reflet Médicis cinema in Paris.  The two directors describe what they find so fascinating about Pickpocket and particularly about Bresson.  Marika Green describes an encounter years later with Martin LaSalle.

Most fascinating is a performance excerpt (11 min.) from the French television show La piste aux étoiles.  Shown is the magician Kassagi weaving his incredible sleigh-of-hand magic.  Kassagi served as a consultant on Pickpocket and was also featured as one of the thieves.  In this excerpt, he generally plays the none-the-wiser audience for absent-minded fools, practically snatching their watches and wallets at will.  What an act!

Lastly, the disc offers an original theatrical trailer.

On the package insert, there is an essay by critic Gary Indiana, who discusses the motivation behind the actions of the film's central character.  Indiana offers an interesting diatribe that meditates extensively on what he perceived as psychosexual tendencies at the film's center.  The article is frankly audacious, sarcastic, and at times insightfully searing.  It makes for an interesting and irreverent read.

Summary:

Pickpocket is yet another Bresson masterpiece, a treatise upon the gradual but assured redemption that may await even the most base of men.  Humanity and basic goodness resides in all of us, whether or not we choose to openly recognize it.

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