(Robert Bresson, France, 1959) 75 minutes


Director: Robert Bresson
Producer: Agnès Delahaie
Screenplay: Robert Bresson
Cinematography: Léonce-Henri Burel
Editor: Raymond Lamy
Sound: Antoine Archimbaud
Martin LaSalle (Michel)
Marika Green (Jeanne)
Jean Pélégri (L'inspecteur)
Dolly Scal (La mère)
Pierre Leymarie (Jacques)

Reviews and notes

1960 Berlin, Venice
1970 Adelaide
2001 Mar del Plata
2017 Hong Kong (restored version)

Less is most definitely more in the late Robert Bresson’s brilliantly pared-down and powerfully austere study of a compulsive pickpocket Michel (Martin Lassalle), who achieves an unlikely redemption through the love of a sympathetic woman (Marika Green). Shot in 1959 on the streets of Paris, and the first of the French director’s films not to be an adaptation of a literary text, it features a cast of deliberately inexpressive non-professional actors. "My feet no longer touched the ground. I dominated the world," explains Michel after his first theft from a lady’s handbag at a racetrack. And it’s the desire to recapture this ecstasy rather than any material gain, which propels the protagonist on his self-destructive path. The fetishistic way Bresson films the pickpocketing sequences confers an erotic dimension upon Michel’s criminal activities, with the camera lingering on hands and faces, and recording the way fingers dip into jacket pockets to retrieve wallets and money. A breathtakingly choreographed sequence at the Gare de Lyon has Michel and his accomplices working their way through a crowd, passing the stolen valuables to one another with sublime dexterity. There’s a dream-like quality to the monochrome Pickpocket, which lasts for just 75 minutes: it’s impossible to gauge how much time passes between sequences, whilst Bresson uses sound and music sparingly to heighten the mysterious atmosphere.
– Tom Dawson, BBC, 03 April 2005.

The story of Bresson's latest film is a strange one. Michel (Martin Lassalle), a sensitive and confused solitary, is compelled by an uncontrollable weakness to pick pockets. A sympathetic Police Inspector and Jacques, a kind but self-righteous friend, try to help him, but he is unable to give up his vice. Inevitably he is arrested and sent to prison, where a girl named Jeanne who was once Jacques' mistress comes to see him. Slowly the past takes on meaning for him as they fall in love; and as they embrace in the final moments of the film Michel murmurs: "Ah, Jeanne, what a curious path I had to take." This curious path to love which Michel must take to atone for his inexplicable guilt is the theme of the film; and in making this journey, most of the time non-comprehendingly, Michel must first be betrayed by the Police Inspector and later misunderstood by his friend Jacques.

An odd story, yet one well rooted in literary history. Michel, like the hero of Dostoievsky's Notes from Underground or Lafcadio in Gide's Les Caves du Vatican, keeps a diary in which he records this secret life of his which, though he can't give it up, has lost him respect, comfort, and ease of conscience. Like his predecessors, Michel is totally immersed in recording his sensations, in dramatising his secret; and in showing us this, Bresson gives us a glimpse into the life of one very unusual type of pickpocket.

For Michel, life is like a spy's journey into an alien land. Though every moment is dangerous, the real test of courage is to confront the menace of strangers on the packed trains of the metro. This is the most important part of his day: a weird relationship is set up with the stranger, weird partly because the stranger knows nothing about it and partly because the robbery is not primarily for financial gain (Michel admits his takings aren't often worth the risk) but for erotic satisfaction. Money to Michel is a symbol of sexual rather than economic power: only by rendering the stranger impotent is Michel's anxiety for a moment allayed. The pickpocket can only live as long as he is destroying the anonymous, affluent society about him.

For hours alone Michel practises his black art as seriously and as sternly as any virtuoso pianist. He slips watches off water-pipes, slides wallets through newspapers, and flexes his fingers. As we look at the world through his eyes, objects take on unusual qualities: a skirting board becomes the edge of a treasure chest, and wallets, watches, and newspapers become magical properties like the toys of a conjuror. When Michel meets his colleagues in a distant bar their prestidigitation grows into a grand ballet of wallets gliding through jackets from pocket to hand against the sonorous chords of Lully's music. This ballet reaches its climax on a sunlit railway station at the seemingly dead hour when passengers wearily climb on to trains and prepare for the long journey. With pickpockets around, this moment takes on a mysterious vitality as shifting wallets glitter and hands like cobras rustle through pockets.

Yet the price Michel must pay for his way of life is heavy. He remains a spy, and a spy without a native land. Even in entering his own room he walks on the brink of disaster. He slides round the door, feeling his way with finger tips, sniffing the air warily for lurking danger.

It is in these documentary moments of Pickpocket that Bresson shows his mastery as a director. A neurotic world is created without trick photography: menace and boredom are developed partly by the use of the same stations, trains, buses, and even the same extras in different crowds, partly by Burel's subtle camerawork, and partly by Bresson's sense of timing. Bresson suggests, he never states: and this he manages mostly by his cutting. His talent for building shots into sequences, and sequences into a whole film is an exceptional one: in its delicacy and elliptical gravity one feels that Bresson, like Eisenstein, has gone back to a study of Japanese poetry and drama. Yet a fine sensibility alone doesn't make a work of art. The ability to interpret intelligently is required, the ability to make the necessary connections; and this we do not find in Pickpocket.

Take for instance the character of Michel. What in fact is the weakness which drives him to "an adventure in theft for which he was not made"? Recent sociological and psycho-analytic knowledge should give us some idea, but Bresson seems indifferent to these findings. (Disturbing overtones in the film suggest he isn't conscious of them at all.) Michel himself is clear only on one point: he isn't a pickpocket for financial gain. Otherwise he is hopelessly confused. Early on in the film he puts forward a superman theory as banal as Loeb and Leopold which in no way explains his behaviour. A little later he says more plausibly: "I wanted to escape. I wasn't getting anywhere." Yet even here there is obscurity, for Michel claims he needs to escape because he can't bear "the load of the world" — which he defines in passing as his mother's illness and his father's dypsomania. We are never shown this drunkard father nor are we told why an egoist like Michel would be so extremely affected by immediate family troubles.

Clearly, Bresson is not interested in the nature of imprisonment: he is only interested in the desire to escape — and this he takes great pains to illustrate. Michel is shown fleeing from France (without luggage or passport!) and when he is in prison (his cell and garret room significantly seem almost identical) it's not the bars that worry him but "the unbearable matter of being caught". Even the pin table on which he sharpens his reflexes is seen as a symbol of his destiny. He too is beaten down like a ball through the flickering lights of society to the inevitable trap.

Yet what is Michel trying to flee from — his neurosis, his selfhood, the human condition? In Un Condamne a Mort s'est Echappe (an earlier Bresson with many parallels to Pickpocket) a similar theme was treated realistically; enough anyway for it to make sense on a literal level — it was surely clear enough why its protagonist wished to escape from the Gestapo. In Pickpocket, however, the far from realistic action compels us to try to work out the nature of the escape.

This would be possible if there were some conflict. Unfortunately, all the characters (including the strangers on the metro) have the same sensitive, histrionic outlook on life as Michel. There is only one noticeable distinction: between the guilty who learn to love (the poor in spirit who shall inherit the earth) and those who lack this kind of understanding. Even the Police Inspector acts towards Michel not as an antagonist but rather as a somewhat startled father confessor involved in the same metaphysical game. The characters in fact are shaped to illustrate Michel's (or Bresson's) sensibility, rather than to criticise it; so that the film gives us a picture of a curiously insulated world, on the surface soft and gentle, but beneath inexorably schematic. Its deficiencies are revealing: because there is no difference in planes of awareness, there is no humour; no one takes up a liberal position; and, most disturbingly of all, no one is aware of his motives.

At first one may be impressed by the mystery surrounding these characters, until one realises that they are only mysterious because they are unable to create their own destinies. None of them in fact is free. They remain puppets manipulated by their creator, forced to move along "the strange paths of love"; and the word "paths" in this context signifies tracks already worn and determined. The undergrowths of choice and possibility on either side are ignored.
- Eric Rhode, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1960.


This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner from the 35mm original camera negative at Digimage in Paris, where the film was also restored. The original monaural soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from the original negative and the 35mm magnetic tracks. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using iZotope RX 3. Transfer supervisor: Mylene Bresson. Colorist: Christophe Bousquet/Digiamge, Paris.
- adapted from Bluray.com, 15 July 2014.

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