Pickpocket (1959)

Disappointedly, I thought this classic tale of crime and redemption would excite a few of my students enough that I would see more than one or two of the familiar faces down at the free screening of Pickpocket. From time to time I forget who I am talking to and when you openly talk about something on the Internet you can never really be sure who your audience is or if you even have one. When it comes to a considered classic work of foreign cinema such as Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket I am quick to assume that most self-proclaimed cinefiles or film-brats have already taken the time to see this staple of cinema. Of course, assuming this only adds more weight to that old adage of what happens to “u” and me when I assume something. Also, it spotlights the real trouble with the self-appointed title, film-brat. That problem I shall save for the end of this piece.

Martin LaSalle plays the lead role and in traditional Bressonian style he goes through the entire film expressionless. Unfunctional and futile his existence has been reduced to one thing – pickpocketing. While his mother dies alone and his friends attempt to help him, LaSalle only seems interested in learning better techniques from other pickpockets. With his earnings LaSalle does not spoil himself for it is not the rewards of his crimes that excite him. It is the experience.

Pickpocket falls under the category of experiential film. To sum up the plot or even the filmic techniques that are used to tell the story robs the film of its beauty and power. The real experience of the film is not in the swift, almost symphonic display of pickpocketing techniques, but in the moment of enlightenment that final arrives a bit too late. With its simplistic narrative, its blank canvas acting, and its graceful balance between the glamour and gravity of sin Bresson is able to craft a redemption story that I fear only get lost in a world of crime. The err is not caused by Bresson’s choice in subject matter, but rather through a growing desire by audiences to see criminal activity glorified. The experience of self-awareness or even salvation is not as exciting as the sinful act of stealing. So, it should be no wonder to me that most of the attention that gets placed on this film by the general audience is the magical techniques and the masterful precession of the petty thieves in this film. Movies are illusions and pickpockets are slight-of-hand artists, but neither seem to be the real reason Bresson made this film.

Like so much of his work the message is subtle in a Bresson film gets shoved beneath the story, in a place that your average film-brat is not willing to look. There is no new twists in story telling or highly innovative camera work or editing form to entice film-brats to watch Pickpocket. Again, it can’t be summed up that easily. Just as no experience can be summed up and told to another person without them losing some part of the experience, Bresson’s films demand that you receive them from beginning to end, for it is only through the experience that you can truly understand and enjoy the reward as you share it with the character in the film. Dedicating time and energy to the cinema is one thing, but dedicating emotions is wholly different. I’m not talking about weeping when a deer dies or getting mad when the bad guy ties a girl to the railroad tracks, but real emotions the kind that come from self-realization – a personal connection, not something animal. Sometimes this can be hard work. Of course movies that require hard work, hardly works for the film-brat. But, Pickpocket is not that hard and on this night it was free. What film lover doesn’t get excited when they see the word free?

I do not imagine that I’ll ever understand the mind of the self-proclaimed film-brat, but perhaps I might take just a peek to see what is going on in there. First, the mind of the film-brat looks for a story. Not any story, but a story unlike all the other stories they have ever seen, even if it’s only marginally different. Next, the film-brat is conscious of film technique. This is what separates them from the rest of the animal kingdom. They can spot camera movements, editing styles, and lighting methods, but they notice these aspects most of all when they are flashy and new. Subtlety is not cinematic, at least not to film-brats. Finally, film-brats appear to prefer that the emphasis fall on brat, not film. Infant terribles, they are more than willing to summarily dismiss, disregard, and denounce the medium they swear they adore, especially if a film challenges their preconceived notions. Worst of all, if a film cannot be hyped or sold to them through mention of its innovative techniques or its fresh narrative a film is not worth the experience. Like your typical brat, even the non-film ones, film brats do not want to watch something just because others tell them should. They need a reason, a really good one that excites then the same way a modern day coming attraction trailer excites them. Begrudgingly, the approach most older and classical films as “must-sees”, things they need to see just to get a monkey off their back or to check off some imagined list. They do not run to these films, but rather, like brats, go in kicking and screaming. If they go at all.


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