Directed by Robert Bresson. France. 1959.


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This review is not of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket as such, but of the 2-disk DVD version released in the UK in 2005. For someone familiar with the film, the most fascinating aspect of the DVD is the “extras”, particularly an interview with the reclusive Bresson and a 52-minute documentary, The Models of Pickpocket, consisting of recent interviews with three of the leading actors.

First, Pickpocket itself. Made in 1959, a commercial and critical failure at the time, it is now considered to be among the two or three greatest and most seminal films of the French master. It was loosely inspired by Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment whose central character regards himself as a superior moral being who, unlike the common herd of people, is entitled to rob and murder. (A similar theme is found in, for example, Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope.) In Pickpocket, the young man Michel feels a compulsion, almost a divine obligation, to become an expert pickpocket, not for the material gain but simply for its own sake. He is shadowed and eventually trapped by a police inspector, and only when he is in prison does he realise that his true vocation was to be with the young woman who loved him, Jeanne. These other two characters have their counterparts in Crime and Punishment.

Like the director’s 1950 film Diary of a Country Priest, Pickpocket takes the form of a diary, presumably being written in prison. We hear Michel’s voice describing what happened, sometimes preceded by his writing it on squared notepaper, and then we see the scene in question. Strictly speaking, therefore, what we are seeing is not the actual events, but the events as recalled later by Michel. Perhaps this helps to justify Bresson’s highly elliptical method of showing only what he considers essential, and of galloping through long sections of the story in literally seconds.

Bresson had long developed his unique method of training his (non-)actors, or “models”, to eschew all expressionism and theatricality in their performances. They act largely with their eyes, nearly all the spoken dialogue being in a kind of fast monotone. They are chosen for their facial expressionlessness, Michel being played by Martin Lasalle, reminiscent of the young Henry Fonda or Montgomery Clift. Jeanne is played by Marika Green, a pretty blonde 16-year-old. I do not recall a single character smile throughout the entire film.

Bresson always opposed the notion of psychological motivation, and his characters often perform actions for no apparent reason. I have already mentioned that Michel’s motive for thieving is not the obvious one, in fact it is as if he is being driven forward by some irresistible force. This is in tune with Bresson’s supposed Jansenism, a kind of Catholic heresy which emphasised predestination and one’s inability to influence one’s fate. Pickpocket repays repeated viewing, and has hugely influenced other film-makers such as Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader.

To turn to the DVD extras, and particularly to The Models of Pickpocket. The actors playing Michel, Jeanne, and Michel’s friend Jacques were sought out and interviewed 45 years later, and they each reminisced about their experiences with Bresson, about his numerous “takes” (Martin Lasalle had to walk upstairs about 50 times for one brief shot), his particular interest in very young women (in a perfectly gentlemanly way), his original intention to entitle the film Uncertainty, and many other interesting reflections. One discovery for me was that both Martin LaSalle (now totally unrecognisable from his pickpocket role) and Marika Green subsequently became professional actors, which I had thought applied to only two of Bresson’s “models” (Anne Wiazemsky of Au Hasard Balthazar and Dominique Sanda of Une Femme Douce), much to his displeasure. According to their filmographies Green has played in 30 French films while Lasalle, who trained at the famous Actors’ Studio in New York (associated with such icons as Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift) and lives in Mexico City, has appeared in no fewer than 60, mostly obscure Mexican movies but including John Duigan’s Romero (1989) about the assassinated Archbishop of El Salvador.

The remaining DVD extras, besides the short Bresson interview, are a short stage interview with Marika Green and (I think) a French critic and a director, and a cabaret performance, filmed for French TV, by Kassagi, the master pickpocket in the film who in reality was a stage magician who specialised in swallowing razor blades. Altogether, a highly commended DVD of a classic film.

Alan Pavelin
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