Judge Joe Armenio continues his reverent series of Robert Bresson reviews.
Robert Bresson (c. 1907-1999) is, among a certain class of cinephiles, hot stuff these days. Bresson was revered by some critics during his life, but was just as often patronized and pigeonholed as a maker of dour, inaccessible crypto-Catholic art films. The last few years have seen a welcome reversal of that trend; critics like James Quandt, Gary Indiana, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and others have expanded the critical discourse surrounding Bresson's work, rescuing him from the prison of "austerity" and "minimalism," and pointing out the true richness and emotional depth of the director's work. A touring retrospective of his films in 1999 was a critical and (relatively) popular success, and Bresson's work showed up consistently in the voting for that barometer of shifting canonical opinion, the 2002 Sight and Sound critics' poll. Bresson has slowly made his way in the DVD era: Pickpocket has now joined Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), Diary of a Country Priest (1951), and Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) in the Criterion catalogue, while New Yorker has released A Man Escaped (1956), Lancelot of the Lake (1974), and L'Argent (1983). This means that seven of Bresson's 13 films are out on DVD, and one hopes the next couple of years will see the entire oeuvre available. Given the reverence with which Bresson's name is often intoned, one would expect a critical backlash to begin soon, but it sure won't start here; Pickpocket, while not my favorite Bresson film, is a formidably powerful and mysterious work of art.
Facts of the Case
Pickpocket is the story of Michel (Martin La Salle), a grim and lonely young man who expresses his alienation from society by stealing; he begins with a clumsy attempt that immediately gets him arrested, but soon gains an expert accomplice (Kassagi) who teaches him the tricks of the trade in a series of virtuoso set pieces. Michel has a friendship of sorts with a police inspector who suspects him (Jean Pelegri), to whom he suggests, a la Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, that the superior man need not trouble with the law. Martin's mother is dying, and his well-adjusted friend Jacques (Pierre Leymarie) is mystified by Michel's refusal to visit her, as is the old woman's dutiful caretaker Jeanne (Marika Green).
I've written a little about Bresson's techniques in my reviews of Au Hasard Balthazar and L'Argent, so I won't go into great detail, expect to say that Pickpocket contains all the hallmarks of Bressonian style: deliberately inexpressive acting, designed to eliminate what the director saw as the distraction of theatricality; a pared-down and elliptical narrative; a precise and musical attention to atmospheric sound, and sparing, often surprising use of music.
When I first saw Pickpocket I was a bit underwhelmed; it seemed almost slight, compared the towering majesty of Au Hasard Balthazar. Part of that certainly has to do with the fact that I saw Pickpocket on VHS and Balthazar in a new print on the big screen; the murky image and sloppy subtitles managed to hide Bresson's genius pretty effectively. Part of the problem was also that Michel's petty theft seemed, well, petty. Such small-time stuff didn't seem able to carry the moral weight of the main character's alienation. The brief Dostoevskian interludes also seemed wrong, their philosophical directness out-of-place; they were a dollop of Dostoevsky dropped without assimilation into Bresson's hermetic universe. In his booklet essay for this DVD, Gary Indiana suggests that the pettiness of Michel's crime is part of the point, that he lacks the courage and faith necessary to do something really monstrous. I'm not sure I buy that, but Bresson's films are so rich, so open-ended, that they are able to sustain any number of plausible interpretations.
Seeing the film in Criterion's excellent new transfer, I'm better able to appreciate the thematic importance of the sequences in which Michel steals. Much of the film takes place in public places where Michel commits his crimes: at a race track, a bank, and a bar, their bustle accentuated by Bresson's characteristic and often exaggerated attention to sound. Here is a man who is desperate to connect, but can manage only an immoral, fleeting charade of connection; he exchanges looks with his victims, establishes an almost erotic closeness, and then steals from them and retreats to his room. Bresson's interest in stealing, ruses, and sleight-of-hand continued through his last film, L'Argent, which features almost as much manual dexterity as Pickpocket; this fascination makes sense considering Bresson's larger concern with the mysterious, the hidden, the roiling activity which goes on beneath a placid surface.
As James Quandt points out in his audio commentary, the film opens itself up to any number of interpretations: Michel's alienation can be seen as an alienation from God, as alienation from society, as (intriguingly) sexual alienation; Michel, in this view, is torn between the "perverse" desire for erotic contact through stealing and the companionship of his male accomplices, and the more conventional sexuality represented by Marika Green's Jeanne. Any of these interpretations are interesting but reductive. The film is perhaps all of these things, and what remains in the mind isn't an abstract message but a series of images that seem to catalogue interior states in a way that film is usually not capable of: Martin, both blank and anguished, forever encased in his severe dark suit, crying silently at his mother's funeral; the rhythmic opening and closing of doors and climbing of staircases throughout the film, suggesting something strange and mysterious about the most mundane journeys; Martin and Jeanne at a café table, glancing away from each other at something unknown, into the middle distance; Martin in the night, hopping on the gorgeous illuminated bus that carries him to his fate.
The most substantial extra on the Criterion disc is a commentary by Bresson
scholar James Quandt, which is terrific, and it's too bad that Criterion
couldn't get him to comment on Au Hasard Balthazar as well. Quandt
combines the best qualities of the enthusiast and the academic, making some
highly original points, such as establishing Bresson's connection with the
contemporaneous French New Wave, in his use of street locations and available
light. He also discusses what Bresson has in common with Caravaggio and the
Baroque composer Lulli (whose music he uses in Pickpocket), and how he
fits into the larger context of artistic modernism and existentialism. Writer
and director Paul Schrader, who has had a career-long interest in Bresson,
provides a 12-minute introduction to the film, which he spends in cataloging the
ways in which Bresson deviates from started cinematic technique, making the
Criterion has also included a six-minute interview with Bresson from 1960, on the French TV show Cinepanorama. This is not as substantial an interview as the one contained on the Au Hasard Balthazar disc, but it's always illuminating to hear the director talk. This interview has a somewhat melancholy cast, owning to the film's lukewarm reception upon its release. At the end the interviewer asks Bresson: "Do you feel alone?" To which he responds: "I feel very alone, but I derive no pleasure from that feeling." At the Q & A session with Green and filmmakers Paul Vecchiali and Jean-Pierre Ameris, from a 2000 screening of the film, Green largely repeats what we've heard in "The Models of Pickpocket," while Vecchiali and Ameris offer their own takes on Bresson's work (it doesn't seem that they knew the man himself). Finally, we have a segment from French TV in 1962, featuring one Kassagi, a "sleight-of-hand artist" and thief who served as an "advisor" on Pickpocket and played Michel's mentor, later developing his own nightclub act. In this piece, he reveals an oddly giggly and awkward stage manner, which is slightly painful to watch.
I won't give away the famous ending of Pickpocket, except to say that it's usually seen as "redemptive," more straightforwardly so than in the rest of this notably bleak filmmaker's work (his endings, it seems to me, are usually tragic, with the slightest suggestion of transcendence, the suggestions growing dimmer and smaller as he grew older). The "happy ending" of Bresson's previous film, A Man Escaped, has always seemed ambiguous to me, the escaped POWs heading out into a world of god-knows-what to the somber strains of Mozart. Gary Indiana, in his booklet essay here, attempts to suggest a similar ambiguity in Pickpocket, reconciling it with Bresson's despairing later work; as I wrote earlier, whether one accepts his interpretation or not, its plausibility is a tribute to the richness, strangeness, and vastness of this terse 75-minute film, which creates such a limitless universe of possibilities.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Film Scholar James Quandt
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