Please don't condemn Judge Gordon Sullivan for his petty crimes.
"A study of humanity in all its mischief and grace."
Robert Bresson's cinema seems so entirely sui generis that it's hard to remember that he was a part of and responded to a number of movements in wider French culture. Before he was a filmmaker he was part of the Surrealist, creating photographs that had the usual dreamlike imagery we associate with Andre Breton and his compatriots. Bresson is also a spiritual godfather to the French New Wave filmmakers, with work like Diary of a Country Priest inspiring the likes of Truffaut and Godard. But just as the French New Wave was about to crest, Bresson largely beat his inheritors to the punch. Pickpocket has many of the hallmarks of the French New Wave, from its handheld, shot-on-location look to the energy brought by non-professional actors, but also maintains the signature Bresson obsessions with gorgeous framing and moral quandaries. Long a part of the Criterion collection, this dual-format release updates the previous DVD release with an excellent new transfer and audio upgrade on the Blu-ray side.
Facts of the Case
Michel (Martin LaSalle, The Mansion of Madness) is a pickpocket drifting through his life. Picked up for a poorly-concealed theft, Michel emerges from prison hungry to keep stealing. He enlists the aid of more seasoned sneak-thieves and embarks on a life of crime. Not even his dying mother or her caregiver can coax Michel into a life that's beyond stealing.
Robert Bresson is remembered for a few of his stylistic quirks. The most obvious is his preference for non-traditional actors. Whether it's the donkey in Mouchette or numerous "models" who had no professional experience, Bresson was obsessed with stripping every performance to the bone. His point wasn't to seek a "reality" beyond performance, but instead to present a different kind of reality. Bresson is also known for his beautiful compositions; even the aforementioned donkey looks gorgeous when framed by Bresson's careful eye. Finally, this focus on the aesthetic is combined, for most people, with Bresson's interest in the spiritual. His spare compositions and focus on human bodies add a spiritual dimension to the lives he portrays.
What's interesting about Pickpocket is the way that Bresson plays with these elements. The film has these stylistic quirks, but here they're given a twist. Michel and his love interest Jeanne are both played by first-time actors, and their slightly wooden performances only add to the detached, alienated reality that Bresson tries to convey. The gorgeous compositions are there as well: Bresson films gorgeous close-ups of hands manipulating wallets and clothing, and the streets of Paris look wonderful. Bresson even transforms a jail cell into a kind of magical space of light and air. It's that final observation that makes Pickpocket an interesting entry in Bresson's catalog: all this artistry, all this beauty, is going to serve a story of simple petty theft. Michel has no ambitions, no great skills outside of stealing (and he's not great at that). And yet he's accorded the same careful attention that Bresson gives a country priest.
The film is, in some ways, a master class in how to steal. And yet, in contrast to a number of '50s films that took on the post-WWII wave of crime, there's nothing sordid or sensational about Bresson's protagonist or his situation. This isn't a moralistic "the kids these days" narrative, nor is it an exposé on the street crime of Paris (which, at least around the Louvre, tends to be pretty horrendous). Instead, it's a startlingly matter-of-fact portrayal of one kind of lifestyle, a lifestyle that lets Bresson indulge his obsession with beautiful framing and spiritual corruption/redemption. Which is all another way of saying that before Pickpocket I never realized that theft could be so beautiful.
Even those unfamiliar with Bresson can find something to appreciate with Pickpocket as well. The film is beautiful to look at, and in contrast to many European masterpieces from the period, it clocks in at a brisk 76 minutes. For investing a little over an hour, viewers get gorgeous images, a peek at post-War Paris, and a wonderful portrait of alienation.
Criterion have done their usual excellent job updating their 2005 DVD with this dual-format release. Pickpocket gets an upgraded 1.37:1/1080p AVC encoded transfer from a new 2K restoration of the original negative. Detail is ridiculously impressive for a film of this budget and vintage. Close-ups of hands dipping into coats reveal texture in abundance, and grain is well handled also. The elements are in great condition, and contrast stays strong throughout. Black levels are appropriately deep and consistent. In short, this restoration is a great piece of work and presented near perfectly with this Blu-ray transfer. The French audio track is available in an uncompressed LPCM mono mix that keeps dialogue clear and the film's sound effects well balanced. The film's music sounds especially rich for a mono mix from the period.
Extras start with an intro by writer-director Paul Schrader (who wrote an academic book about Bresson and some other filmmakers). Next up is series of interviews from 2003 with the "models" from the film, LaSalle, Marika Green (Jeanne) and Pierre Leymarie (Jacques). An episode of Cinepanorama on the film is also included, as is a short clip from a show that features Kassagi, the sleight-of-hand artist who was a consultant on Pickpocket. A Q&A from 2000 featuring Marika Green is also available. James Quandt provides a commentary that's rich in historical detail and connections to other Bresson films. The disc also includes the film's trailer. The usual Criterion booklet includes an essay from Gary Indiana. A DVD is included that mirrors all the material on the Blu-ray.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite the short running time and focus on thieves, Pickpocket is not a fast-paced film full of thrills and violence. Like other Bresson films it can be slow and contemplative at times. The film might also frustrate those looking for deep characters and complex motivations. Michel and Jeanne are barely-there in terms of characterization, their alienation from each other and the world standing in for any of the pleasures of the typical romance.
Pickpocket is one of many of Robert Bresson's masterpieces. It's also a great place to start for those new to the French filmmakers. Whether veteran or total newbie, this dual-format edition of the film is the perfect release, full of informative supplements on top of gorgeous audiovisual presentation.
Unlike Michel, Pickpocket is not guilty.
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