Director: Robert Bresson
Production: Lux Films: black and white, 35mm; running time 75 minutes. Released 1959.
Producer: Agnès Delahaie; screenplay: Robert Bresson; photography: L. H. Burel; editor: Raymond Lamy; sound engineer: Antoine Archimbault; production designer: Pierre Charbonnier; music: Lully.
Cast: Martin Lassalle ( Michel ); Marika Green ( Jeanne ); Pierre Leymarie ( Jacques ); Jean Pelegri ( Instructor ); Kassigi ( Initiator ); Pierre Etaix ( 2nd accomplice ); Mme. Scal ( Mother ).
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Pickpocket , made in 1959 by Robert Bresson, was not considered a "New Wave" film because it did not deal with the problems of what Jean-Luc Godard termed "psychological realism." Pickpocket did not address the then burgeoning question of cinematic reality, whether this status must be assigned according to the perception of reality or in terms of its impression. In fact, contrary to the expanding discipline of semiotics during the late 1950s and early 1960s Pickpocket was so sufficiently depersonalized and unrealistic as to avoid being regarded as an example of a film that articulated the way in which film was a "language system." The filmmakers of this genre (as it is now recognized) were concerned with the deconstruction of the "Hollywood" fiction film and its idiosyncratic stylization of cinematic reality. Bresson was not attempting to contribute cinematically to the ideological canons of the period. Instead, he was interested in exploring themes of redemption, a bourgeois preoccupation that did not coincide with New Wave theories of "distancing" and "unrealization." In elucidating the "road to redemption" in Pickpocket , Bresson employs the devices of ellipsis and temporal distention. Close-ups of objects and actions are incriminating and clinical. He fragments the body frequently, compartmentalizing the parts shown into tight, claustrophobic realms of desire. One senses Michel's compulsion to "fill up" some kind of void; there is a relentless but carefully repressed feeling of urgency in the film to experience a wholeness. With each theft that he both approaches and moves further away from this unrecognized (until the last moment of the film) spiritual yearning. It is the action of the crime itself that interests both the character Michel and director Bresson, rather than the material gains and narative consequences it may bring.
In order that we clearly see the acts of "adding and subtracting" themselves, Bresson deftly shadows the movements of hands and eyes with his camera. At the moment of transference, i.e., when the money or the object ceases being owned by the "victim," the shot of this precarious exchange is held for a few "long" seconds. The distention of this moment denies verisimilitude to the representation of the theft and serves to call it to our attention on a symbolic level. It is at this level that the viewer comes closest, through the metaphoric use of temporal distortion and fragmentation, to grasping the apostatic lengths to which Michel is blindly going, that his emptied soul might find redemption.
Pickpocket proves to be an excellent filmic discourse on the boundaries and rules of bourgeois perception. Space is repeatedly compartmentalized in the film, being marked out more and more constrictively as the main character becomes further dependent upon the illusionary efficacy of his displaced desire. Bresson reverses the denotational treatment of "public" and "private" space. The door to Michel's room has no lock or any kind of securing device, so throughout the film it remains ajar. Since western audiences are culturally attuned to the properties of bourgeois space and are accustomed to seeing them observed, it is disconcerting to accept the existence of this unguarded, undefined space.
Conversely, Bresson focuses without scruple on the scenes and bare moments of the crimes, thereby reconsolidating public space as private. The human eye can not objectively see a crime being committed. Instead, it perceives the act as it has been sedimented informationally through the media. Thus, television cameras have taken over the task. On film, the action of the crime is metacommunicated by its image. This image of the forbidden act is already motivated in terms of its signifying historicity. In Pickpocket , the functional status of this meta-communicated image is that of a palimpsest, allowing the viewer to see it as a diegetic trace. It shows but does not interpret or explain the main character's movements in the story. Further, this trace, insofar as it does not presuppose a narrative closure, re-posits the primordial status of pre-bourgeois, unassigned space. In terms of discovering the reason why Michel steals, Bresson intends that it be attributed anagogically, rather than accessible through scientific analysis.
—Sandra L. Beck