PICKPOCKET (Robert Bresson, 1959)
BAMcinématek, BAM Rose Cinemas
30 Lafayette Ave. between Ashland Pl. & St. Felix St.
Friday, November 4, 5:30, 7:30, 9:30, and Sunday, November 6, 4:30
Series runs November 4-6
Robert Bresson’s 1959 Pickpocket is a stylistic marvel, a brilliant examination of a deeply troubled man and his dark obsessions. Evoking Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Martin LaSalle made his cinematic debut as Michel, a ne’er-do-well Parisian who lives in a decrepit apartment, refuses to visit his ailing mother (Dolly Scal), and decides to become a pickpocket. But it’s not necessarily the money he’s after; he hides the cash and watches that he steals in his room, which he is unable to lock from the outside. Instead, his petty thievery seems to give him some kind of psychosexual thrill, although his pleasure can seldom be seen in his staring, beady eyes. As the film opens, Michel is at the racetrack, dipping his fingers into a woman’s purse in an erotically charged moment that is captivating, instantly turning the viewer into voyeur. Of course, film audiences by nature are a kind of peeping Tom, but Bresson makes them complicit in Michel’s actions; although there is virtually nothing to like about the character, who is distant and aloof when not being outright nasty, even to his only friends, Jacques (Pierre Leymarie) and Jeanne (Marika Green), the audience can’t help but breathlessly root for him to succeed as he dangerously dips his hands into men’s pockets on the street and in the Metro. Soon he is being watched by a police inspector (Jean Pélégri), to whom he daringly gives a book about George Barrington, the famed “Prince of Pickpockets,” as well as a stranger (Kassagi) who wants him to join a small cadre of thieves, leading to a gorgeously choreographed scene of the men working in tandem as they pick a bunch of pockets. Through it all, however, Michel remains nonplussed, living a strange, private life, uncomfortable in his own skin. “You’re not in this world,” Jeanne tells him at one point.
Bresson (Au hasard Balthazar, Diary of a Country Priest) fills Pickpocket with visual clues and repeated symbols that add deep layers to the narrative, particularly an endless array of shots of hands and a parade of doors, many of which are left ajar and/or unlocked in the first half of the film but are increasingly closed as the end approaches. Shot in black-and-white by Léonce-Henri Burel — Bresson wouldn’t make his first color film until 1969’s Un femme douce — Pickpocket also has elements of film noir that combine with a visual intimacy to create a moody, claustrophobic feeling that hovers over and around Michel and the story. It’s a mesmerizing performance in a mesmerizing film, one of the finest of Bresson’s remarkable, and remarkably influential, career. Pickpocket is screening November 4 and 6 in the BAMcinématek series “Bresson on Bresson,” three days of films by Bresson as well as a handful that share his similar cinematic sensibility, being held in conjunction with the publication of a new translation of Bresson on Bresson: Interviews, 1943-1983. The whirlwind three-day, thirteen-film series also includes Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, and Mouchette alongside Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, Charlie Chaplin’s Gold Rush and City Lights, Robert J. Flaherty’s Louisiana Story and Man of Aran, Buster Keaton shorts, Sergei M. Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, David Lean’s Brief Encounter, and Jean Cocteau’s The Testament of Orpheus.