Pickpocket (1959)

Directed by Robert Bresson


Pickpocket is a French New Wave film, and when I think about that movement, I think of young, restless, and in some ways rebellious filmmakers who wanted to challenge the ideas of what movies could be.  But then you have someone like Robert Bresson who was nearing 60 at the time, as two of the other notable French directors, Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard, were around 27 and 29 respectively.

Pickpocket feels like a young person’s movie.  It’s about a young thief, Michel (Martin La Salle), who openly questions the world and its rules.  He might as well be a rebellious teenager…

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Michel never seems happy.  He picks the pockets of the unsuspecting at first as a means to survive, but later he does it more for the thrill.  What’s so great about this film is the severity of his crime.  Even though it might seem relatively harmless, considering the things we’ve seen in movies and even in real life, no one sees pick pocketing as anything other than horrendous.  In many ways characters like Jeanne recoil at the revelation of Michel’s thievery like it’s disgusting.

And because of the aghast reactions to Michael’s behavior, this film seems to be suggesting that this break from morality is momentous, as if commenting on the ways the world had turned at the time.

I can barely put my thoughts together right now, but if Michel’s crimes were more despicable, like let’s say he was a serial killer, than the astonished and horrified reactions of the people around him would make sense, because we share their values.  Murder is bad.

But I don’t feel that way about pickpocketing, and I’m sure most people would feel the same.  Sure we’d say ‘hey don’t do that,’ but there’s no one calling for him to receive the electric chair.  Pickpocketing even sounds adorable, but again the reactions to this low-level crime show the different balances of our collective morality at that time.

I’m guessing that postwar Europe was a bit of a mess.  While in America the narratives are all about the delights of men returning from war and the growing middle class, leading to more leisure and products aimed to capitalize on that leisure, Europe seems like it was much too close to the action to really distance itself from that time period.  How can you simply move on when entire villages in your country were bombed out like they were nothing?

So I have to think that Michel’s attitudes, and his pickpocketing is symbolic, standing in for the attitudes of many young men and women, not yet able to completely accept this new world, where war just kind of happens.  You can’t pretend like nothing happened, in other words.  So I imagine that in such a space and time, you begin to question everything, including what’s right and wrong and what do good intentions mean if so many people can be killed and some of those responsible get away with it.

I suppose that Michel’s attitudes in this film reflect those of a modern audience, seeing pickpocketing as a minor crime in comparison to what else we know goes on in the world.  The rest of the folks in this film are more appalled, representing an older perspective of the world, one that persisted most likely before the war and less so afterwards.

If you accept that theory, then we can read into Michel’s behavior as a conversation with pre-war Europe and pre-war optimism.  This film might as well be set in the mid to early 30s, and Michael might as well be a time-traveller who refrains from telling them what happened but instead channels his angst into small crimes that to him mean nothing and to everyone else might as well mean murder.

I don’t think we ever see Michael smile in Pickpocket.  For most of the story, he looks like this:

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And when he experiences the thrill of picking someone’s pocket and nearly getting caught by the police, he looks like this:

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Look at the fire in those eyes!  Michael is ver ghostly, maybe even zombie-like.  He comes across as very artificial, and– you know what? He’s more like an alien now that I think about it.  He has that icy stare, like he’s constantly reading people but never engaging with them.  I mean, that is the case, since we spend most of the time with him studying people and trying to figure out how to get as close to them as possible so as to snatch their wallet or a watch without being noticed.

He’s a very lonely figure, and yet he really is constantly getting as close to people as possible.  It’s only at the end of the film, after he’s put in jail, that Michel expresses desire for another person, in this case Jeanne, the young woman who cared for his dying mother.  This sudden attraction feels as if it’s coming out of nowhere, and perhaps it is, but dramatic point is to show a character who only decides to join the real world once he is no longer able to.  The final image is of Michael and Jeanne nuzzling cheeks through the bars of his cell.

So what does Michel’s character arc say?  He experiences the criminal story arc that we’ve become very accustomed to.  Hell, the story starts with him in the future, writing a letter about the events of this story.  That only sounds like every crime movie ever made.  So right away we can see the influence a film like this presumably had over ones that followed, though it’s likely that even Bresson borrowed some of his ideas from earlier films.

Then we see Michel steal because he has to, perhaps justifying his behavior in his head, but by the end he is caught due to hubris.  A man who is clearly an undercover cop voluntarily shows Michael how much money he has, and then Michael predictably tries to pick his pocket, only this time he is arrested.

So Michel becomes more and more infected by this lifestyle, more corrupted in a sense.  He, again, could just reflect post-war values in Europe.  He will do anything to survive, but then his crimes become more egregious and unnecessary.  They’re pointless, in a way, perfectly encapsulating his world view:

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I don’t know, that kind of sounds to me like a God complex.  Michel lives in a world without rules, so he defines his own, only he has yet to come up with any.  Michel only hasn’t killed anyone, I’m guessing, because he hasn’t gotten that far yet.  His crimes mean more symbolically and as a sign of the slippery slope down which he is slipping.

Even though Pickpocket is a crime story, it says much more in the conversations in between, whether that’s between Michel and Jeanne or between Michel and a police officer to whom Michel spews his new philosophy, wondering if it’s right that certain people benefit from stealing from others.  I’m forgetting his exact logic, but he says something like, if they can get away with it, then all the more power to them.  Michel doesn’t seem to realize the suspicion that this attracts to him, but he’s already mad on some kind of spiritual, philosophical power-trip.  He thinks his view of the world is better and more correct than that held by so many other people.  Oh I get it, he’s kind of a sociopath.

So my impressions now are that World War 2 created sociopaths in that the events were so horrific and unforseen that they created a vast, wide open gray area into which people were free to create their own morals since the previous ones seemed to have failed.

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