I came to Pickpocket (or was it Pickpocket that came to me?) at a time, I think, I needed it most. The attraction was immediate. My mother—born in Cuba and raised on a ridiculous amount of Russian literature—turned me on to Dostoyevsky in high school. Crime and Punishment was my favorite book and the correspondence between the text and Bresson’s film was exciting. Also enticing was Martin LaSalle. Tall, dark, lanky, and Latino, we could have been related (we even have a mole in the exact same spot on our right cheek), a confession that probably pegs me as a narcissist, but let’s not pretend the movies we love most are not the ones that most forcibly hold a mirror to our faces. LaSalle was beautiful but it’s his turmoil and haunted eyes I found most attractive and, finally, instructive. Lonely, just barely out of the closet, and recently divorced from God, I also used to steal, getting caught a number of times but always weaseling myself out of potential jail time. Godard famously said Au Hasard Balthazar was “life in 90 minutes”; for me, though, Pickpocket was “my life in 75 minutes.” It was my life to live but one I didn’t necessarily want to—except I knew no other.
Bresson profoundly understood this kind of torture, confusion, and crippling sense of spiritual and emotional emptiness, and every image in Pickpocket evokes the director’s idea of the soul in transition. This is why Michel is always passing through doors and ascending and descending stairways: Like the characters in the director’s equally fine L’Argent, Michel is a slave to his material world, and he spends his time looking for a passage into a realm that promises more meaningful, less transitory, rewards. But Bresson connects us to Michel’s plight sexually as well as spiritually. Make no mistake: there’s a psychosexual urgency to the film’s thieving scenes that is perverse and thrilling. This is not an insult to Bresson, who understands that Michel steals in the same way a person does drugs (in Jeanne, he not only finds a healthy, albeit specious form of spiritual salvation but an inhibitor for his reckless self-abuse). Though he pickpockets in order fill a spiritual void, to pretend that he doesn’t derive some kind of pleasure, however fleeting, from stealing is to misunderstand the way we cheat and compromise our deepest and most meaningful desires.
What is it about Bresson’s films that inspire such personal reactions and frank admissions from their admirers? The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman understands that his favorite directors do not work on his heart and mind in quite the same way they do on the person sitting next to him in the theater, but he reaches the edge of his tolerance in the case of Bresson: “Bluntly put, to not get Bresson is to not get the idea of motion pictures—it’s to have missed that train the Lumiére brothers filmed arriving at Lyon station 110 years ago.” And in his liner notes for The Criterion Collection’s Pickpocket, Gary Indiana dares to tell us he was on LSD when he saw the film for the first time, the first of many revelations that surely raised the ire of Armond White, whose response to Indiana’s article in The New York Press is one that may now overshadow the film’s DVD premiere but is one that cannot be discounted. If I don’t fully align myself with the arguments pitched by either White or Indiana it’s because they’re both right. Bresson so completely understood the full spectrum of our human condition that to ignore the sexual and spiritual elements that run concurrently through his films is to not get Bresson at all.