Sunday, May 20, 2007


My initial reaction to watching Pickpocket was, "What a great movie! Too bad most of the people I know won't like it." Many of the black and white European movies I've seen have fallen into one of two categories. They are either excellent in their own right and don't exhibit any of the stereotypical "subtitle movie" qualities that many Americans object to. What I mean is that they aren't boring, they've got just as much going on plot-wise as any American film, and they're focused around meaningful character development. They may be slightly less forceful in their melodrama, but there isn't much seperating these movies from standard Hollywood fare. The other category is made up of those films that are in fact boring and pretentious. Hello Tartovsky! I still enjoy watching these films, but I would understand if a friend walked off halfway through a viewing.

Pickpocket splits the difference and somehow makes me like it all the more for this. It is emotionally flat at times and much of the film is quite uneventful. A fan of quick dialog and wrenching emotional acting would find it tedious I imagine. There are long shots of the pickpocket's face reacting to something directly behind the camera. When the shot finally flips around we see only a man standing on a sidewalk in daylight. The man could be anyone and the street could be any street. For long stretches of the film the soundtrack consists only of the clicking and grinding of shoes on pavement. Anonymous Parisians walk through the frame, perhaps they are the police from previous scenes stalking our pickpocket, perhaps they are merely pedestrians. Bresson did include several montages of the pickpocket and his accomplices at work. We see the quick finger work and sly hand-offs that allow these men to transfer the wallets and money wads of their victims away from their bodes without suspicion. However, these sequences serve mostly as emotional interludes to the pervading anxiety of the pickpocket's life.

This surprising quality, that the pickpocket is most comfortable at the times when he is in the greatest danger of being caught, reveals his character. Yes, he steals because he needs money, but I believe his main motivation is boredom and loneliness. The other pickpockets, and even the police who threaten him, are closer to him than his best friend. Why is the pickpocket so alone? He is a man without a place in society but with grand conceptions of his own possibilities. He will not take the crappy jobs his friend finds for him because he feels above that kind of life. Yet, because he will not accept these jobs he is driven to act in ways that lower him beneath even this level. He is a meek and minor Satan, refusing servitude in exchange for a vile freedom. The characters in the movie mention Raskolnikov, the hero of Crime and Punishment, and this is a fitting comparison, but I found myself thinking more of Camus' The Stranger and Defoe's Moll Flanders. The pickpocket is offended by the absurdity of the universe but he is also trying desperately to fit into that very absurdity.

I won't give away the plot for those of you that haven't seen it, but I will say that Michel's last line in the film reveals a side of his character that I had hoped for, but that was not apparent in any other scene. Perhaps there was a preoccupation that explained his actions from the beginning. This scene is offers an incredible amount of pathos because it comes after seventy minutes of tense, bland conversation, and awkward character interaction. I would go so far as to rank the ending of Pickpocket as one of the greatest film endings of all time.

The DVD version of Pickpocket comes with excellent interviews with the cast members and one older interview with Bresson form French television. In response to the question, "Do you feel alone?" (Not the sort of question you'd hear on Entertainment Tonight or The Actor's Studio) Bresson says, "Yes, I feel quite alone. And I gain no satisfaction from this feeling." In light of this, I can't help seeing Pickpocket as a sort of fantasy wish fulfillment. It doesn't hurt that Michel's love interest is played by 16 year old Marika Green, a woman of captivating beauty (I found it difficult to watch anything else when she was on screen, if it wasn't revealed at some point that Michel also felt this way I would have found the film difficult to believe in). Bresson also says that he doesn't feel the acting, or non-acting style that he evoked from the cast members was unrealistic. Thinking back to some of the most important events in my life I understand what he means. At times of great emotional turmoil I often find it more difficult, not less, to express myself. Laughter or tears often demonstrate an emotion that we have dealt with and are moving past, while a blank face can hide a mind reeling in horror from events it cannot accept or understand.

1 comment:

Little Earl said...

I think the most accurate way one could describe the style of the film is "gracefully awkward."

And yes, the chick is quite fetching.