Thursday, October 23, 2014

Pickpocket: The Hidden Unhidden

Robert Bresson has been described as the most Christian film director of all time. From his very first film – Diary of a Country Priest – to his last – L'argent – he stood firmly by an almost ascetic view of life. Pickpocket, his third film, may not have been his masterpiece: but it establishes his style perfectly.

His vision of life – hermit-like, ascetic, unemotional – is expressed through the banal routine of a Parisian thief. The thief has no double life: his entire daily life revolves around an almost sexual routine of picking others' pockets and stashing away his "treasure" within a hole by his bed. He has a mother, who dies half-way through, and a friend, who becomes a hypocrite at the end. But beyond this, he has no other life.

Martin LaSalle plays the role of the thief, Michel, and the camera records his movements as we see his hands creep out from one pocket and into another.

At one point he teams with two other emotionless thieves: in a celebrated sequence that is almost ballet-like we see one hand grabbing from a pocket while another quickly takes the purse, empties it into his pocket, and drops it into a bin. Bresson achieves this with his stringent attitude to his characters: his characteristic trademark was his frequent takes of actors. After the penultimate take, the actor would usually play his role with no emotion, almost mechanically – like a robot.

Michel's eyes are our guide to his intentions. In them we see not fear, not hate, but a sensual desire to feel others' pockets. His motives are not vulgar, of course, but we also get a passing glance at his condition with his conversations with a Police Chief. He discusses with him about who he calls "supermen", who will be able to rob and steal for a higher purpose, without the law catching them. The Chief, who we are made to think suspects him, begs to differ: all thieves are equal, and deserve the same punishment.

The exchanges between the inferiority complex-ridden Michel and the Chief reflect those found in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, which also told the story of a Police Inspector entrapping a criminal through subtle hints, albeit there it revolved around a murder. Here we have a simple thief: in certain sequences, especially those with his friend Jacques, we get it that he may have become a more dignified, respectable man, but he just let the opportunity pass. And the second aspect to Pickpocket's story – his romance with a girl called Jeanne – will figure in his redemption at the end.

Bresson's films are hard to criticise: none of them, it has been said, has any form of artifice or pretension. Pickpocket very easily can become, in certain sequences, a showcasing of film form over content: especially in those scenes of thievery. But the director shoots them all with absolutely no frills running beneath. He followed this up with two more quiet masterpieces: Au Hasard Balthazar, which harmonised a donkey's and a village girl's plight in an almost musical way, and Mouchette, which relayed the story of an outcast village girl with quiet sympathy.

He called himself a "Christian atheist", but in no other director, some critics think, can we find a near-perfect conjunction of cinema and religion. Pickpocket, of course, has no religion attached to it: Michel finds his release at the end, paradoxically in prison, with him realizing his love for Jeanne ("Oh Jeanne," he says in a monologue, "to find you, what a strange path I had to take."), and not through a priest or confessional. But it achieves just as well the same end: to place the individual, small-time man as a reflection of universal redemption.