PICKPOCKET (Cert. PG) begins with a disclaimer: “This film is not a thriller.” It might be, but this 1959 re-released film has some great tense moments as it unites two souls in an act of grace. The director of the film, Robert Bresson (1901-1999), a devout Roman Catholic, is considered a giant by many critics and filmmakers for a style like no other. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, many have since adopted its sober and austere methods in their own work.
His work is regularly presented in retrospectives around the world, and it is once again the turn of the British Film Institute (BFI) to host a season of Bresson, “Of Sin and Salvation”, in its theater in the South Bank in London.
Pickpocket is based on Crime and Punishment, Bresson’s first foray into Dostoyevsky, but by no means his last. Here, Michel (Martin LaSalle, at the time an untrained actor) saw what Bresson called a “terrible solitude which is a prison for thieves”. He isolates Michel from others, including his sick mother, from whom he stole money. An image of banknotes – representing the ability of dirty profit to corrupt the human soul – immediately follows Michel’s opening voiceover, which (reminiscent of Bresson’s Diary of a country priest) accompanies his writings on his “deeds”.
He refers to these petty thefts, which he justifies to the police inspector (John Pelegri) as the right of supermen “whose consciences select them” to behave independently of any law. That he finally considers himself one of the Nietzsche Übermenschen remains an enigma, as does much of Michel’s erratic behavior. His questioning of normative morality (one could say Christian) can appear as a form of ambivalent self-examination. Whether it’s Adam and Eve (whose Bresson wanted to make a film) or Michel, it’s a source of pride before the fall.
Yet we witness his compassion as well as the misdeeds. He experiences his mother’s forgiveness and also the unconditional love of a young woman, Jeanne (Marika Green). Reflecting on this, Michel talks about “the strange path I had to take” to achieve what writer-director Paul Schrader described as a transcendental moment. It is a cinematic style in which there is a movement away from a “cold and insensitive world” towards an “striving towards the ineffable and the invisible”. Schrader himself made several films using this technique, including american gigolo (1980), which he openly admits is indebted to Pickpocket.
Bresson’s films are distinctly minimalist. The action is stripped down in preference to the use of image and sound to tell its story of transgression and redemption through divine grace. Its laconic people search for meaning in the dark world they watch. Echoing certain words of Fra Giovanni Giocondo (circa 1433-1515), the director begs us, like his characters, to look beyond the darkness of the world and see that joy is within our reach. For this to happen, it requires knowledgeable viewers not to judge on outward appearances, but to interpret for themselves what is going on inside each character and, in doing so, interrogate those feelings to the fullest. deep within ourselves that only God knows.
In theaters and available on Blu-ray at the BFI Shop (tel. 020 7815 1350) or via www.bfi.org.uk/shop. Details of the BFI Bresson season on: whatson.bfi.org.uk