The depths of Robert Bresson’s ostensibly simple formalism and stark moralism only make themselves apparent after multiple viewings of his films. That’s true even of Pickpocket, which, along with A Man Escaped, is perhaps the most accessible of the director’s work. The action of its Dostoevskian protagonist, the self-justifying thief Michel (Martin LaSalle), propels the film with exciting sequences of pickpocketing that ease the viewer into Bresson’s austere style. But even if he wasn’t an effervescent aesthete, his filmmaking was perfectly attuned to his moral evaluations, and Pickpocket remains one of the clearest examples of Bresson’s minimalism evoking rich character and moral insights.
Consider how the basic outline of the first sequence reveals great care after the fact: Michel, just one among a throng of people when he decides to pick his first pocket, initially comes off as so unremarkable that only a shot that stares directly at him as he speaks in voiceover indicates that he will be the film’s focal point. But watch the scene more closely, and it’s evident that even if the narration had been stripped from the soundtrack, Michel would still stick out like a sore thumb. LaSalle, in his first film appearance, is blank in that nervous way that gives away non-actors aware of a camera. Every movement Michel makes runs counter to the natural flow of the crowd. Initially, the scene’s most striking moment may seem to be the close-up of Michel’s hand unlatching a purse and purloining its contents. Revisiting it, however, the true payoff is seeing the new thief attempt to remove himself from the area without arousing suspicion, not blending in, but instantly placing himself outside the crowd as his inconspicuous walk away only isolates him. Sure enough, just as Michel remembers thinking he was in the clear, two officers walk up beside him and place him in a car.
The ingenious blocking of this scene prefigures an entire film that maximizes Bresson’s minimalistic style. The sparse camera movements, use of intuitive close-ups of action, and reliance on diegetic noise ground the sequences of Michel’s thefts, but they also generate excitement by stripping away everything but the thief’s elegant maneuvers. Indeed, scenes of Michel practicing in his apartment, training himself to gingerly pluck billfolds from coat pockets and unbuckle wristwatches with one hand could stand as neat summaries of Bresson’s strengths as a filmmaker, making routine of the extraordinary, and vice versa. One sequence, of Michel and some accomplices engaged in a back-and-forth trade of stolen objects as they patrol a train station, turns Bresson’s seeming asceticism nearly balletic. The judicious cutting, use of darting close-ups, and the pure focus on movement and action is so graceful that even Johnnie To, one of the most graceful of stylists, could barely do more than imitate its rhythms in his own pickpocket film, Sparrow.
The thrills that these moments conjure counter the nominally severe, objective remove of the camera, and they also suggest that these feelings belong to Michel as well. Bresson’s designation of his non-actors as “interpreters” and “models” is condescending, but he also drags something compelling out of LaSalle. Where the neorealists used nonprofessionals to bypass theatricality for the raw and political, Bresson takes advantage of how unnatural regular people are around cameras. LaSalle is captivating in the lead part precisely because he always suggests a degree of anxiousness that can translate equally to fear and exhilaration. And where a trained actor, especially one who’d gone out and read Crime and Punishment and sank into Dostoevsky’s neurotic prose, might have overplayed the almost orgasmic pleasure that stealing gives Michel, LaSalle reduces it to nothing more than a nervous facial expression.
Throughout the film, the camerawork focuses to the handling of money, tracking after it the way a dog sniffs for a treat. As such, Pickpocket forecasts an even greater emphasis that Bresson’s final film, L’Argent, placed on the importance of money in social life. Indeed, this film feels like the precursor to L’Argent’s moral apocalypse, which depicts a society already in total thrall to money, rendered completely inhuman by its draw. Michel, however, is all too human, and the ecstasy he gets from his stealing shows money starting to exhibit total control over its first victims. The film’s focused action makes it the perfect gateway for Bresson, but the insolubility of Michel’s pleasure in transgression—possibly psychological, political, or sexual—is the first great lesson in how complicated and difficult his spare cinema truly was.
Criterion’s Blu-Ray shows off an impressively detailed transfer. The film’s many close-ups reveal exceptional textures, and contrast is great throughout. The pallid gray tones of Michel’s spartan apartment are made yet more oppressive by the clear image, and film grain shows no signs of DNR. Sound is as vital in Robert Bresson’s cinema as the imagery, and the disc’s lossless mono soundtrack is as evocative as and crisp as the transfer. The track flawlessly captures rumble of vehicle engines, the wash of indistinct crowd speech, and especially the delicate snap of an unlatched purse and the crinkle of fresh francs.
James Quandt, film programmer for TIFF and editor of the great monograph Robert Bresson, provides a commentary track for the film. Clearly used to speaking about films a certain way in his day job, Quandt sometimes sounds like he’s performing a 75-minute introduction for the movie, slightly rushing his words and speaking in a somewhat forced jovial tone. Nonetheless, his insights into the film are indispensable, touching on the production, but devoting most of his energy to unpacking the complexity of its themes and formalism. "The Models of Pickpocket" catches up with the film’s actors to talk about their experience working with Bresson, while an episode of French TV show "Cinepanorama" contains a brief interview with the filmmaker. Also included is a Q&A recorded in 2000 between Marika Green and filmmakers Jean-Pierre Ameris and Paul Vecchiali, as well an archival clip of Kassagi, the sleight-of-hand artist who worked as a consultant on the film. A theatrical trailer and booklet with essay by Gary Indiana complete the package.
One of Robert Bresson’s greatest films receives an excellent high-def upgrade from Criterion.