Foreign Language Thursday: Pickpocket (1959)

5 05 2011

The cold, expressionless face of Martin LaSalle controls much of the screen time of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. Under the surface burns emotions such as fear, anticipation, joy, and exhilaration but LaSalle’s character, Michel, never gives the audience a hint of it outside of his narration of events. Michel lives the life of a thief, beginning the movie working alone and sloppy although he soon begins to expand, using more people and becomes more confident in his ability. Pickpocket is a movie about compulsion and greed, not so much greed of wealth but greed of power. Michel’s story is only 75 minutes long but Bresson shows us a very full character and his compelling arc.

Tell No One

Robert Bresson treats Pickpocket like a piece of art, he consistently shows us images and allows us to make what we will out of it but at the same time never holding anything back, never trying to mislead or deceive the viewer. We are let in on all of Michel’s secrets and see exactly how he steals from people, sometimes inspired and other times more obvious. Michel also narrates the whole movie as he describes his feelings and what he is doing. A large part of what makes Pickpocket so compelling is hearing what Michel has to say while seeing him in action; we are hearing someone’s recollection of events as we are watching them occur in real time making a compelling contrast. Adding in Bresson’s cinematography makes Pickpocket an exceptionally engaging film to watch.


What drives the film is Michel and how much of a “real” character he is. It is such a common compliment for a writer to produce a “real” character but at this juncture I can think of no better way to describe him. The real genius behind it is being able to not only have our impression of Michel but Michel’s opinion of himself as well. At the beginning of the film he tells us how scared he was about to steal a woman’s purse and we see him attempting to act normal; not acting normal, attempting to. This fades as Michel becomes more confident in his abilities and more ambitious working with more people. Intriguingly we are never really given a reason why Michel is a thief. He and the people he works with are not a group a lowlifes, on the contrary, they seem quite adept and fairly intelligent. They steal because they can, and as Michel gets better he becomes more concentrated on it and more involved. Of course he finally hits rock bottom and eventually finds salvation in a friend. Michel is a great character not only because of how he acts but because of the arc his character goes through, especially in such a short period of time.

Bresson has been called a very Christian director and many of his movies carry religious themes but at the same time they are also very human themes. These undertones are there, but never overbearing allowing the viewer to take the film as they will. Nevertheless Pickpocket is inspiring, relatable, and a treat to watch. Just be weary, although it is officially a 75 minute film the urge to immediately re-watch it afterwards has inflated that number for me.

Score: 96/100




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