Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket is a film that should be your typical crime drama. It’s got all the makings of the perfect crime drama, all the right characters and all the right plot points, yet Bresson’s filmic style creates a crime drama unlike many others you’ve seen.
Michel is a young man without a job or much direction in his life. His mother is ill and bed-ridden. As the film begins Michel immediately finds his calling in the art of pickpocketing. I say “art” because, Bresson and his characters make it look like an art in its planning, performance and even reward. At first, Michel is not that great at it; teaching himself he slips up and even gets arrested. With no hard evidence to convict him, he is let go.
Eventually, Michel tries again; practicing and learning the ways of thievery. One night, in a gorgeously composed scene, Michel notices a man lurking outside his apartment building. It turns out to be another pickpocket who soon becomes a sort of mentor for Michel. Before long the two have turned into three and the pickpocket gang is off to the train station to reap their wares in a classic montage of ingenious pickpocketing techniques.
I’ll admit, upon first viewing of this montage, while impressed by the content, I was somewhat resistant to the editing style Bresson employed. It felt foreign to me and after staying with it for a while, I began to realize that this was not your average montage. Bresson wanted it to be something that was outside the safe zones of film theory. Actually, the entire pacing of the film was unusual, and that is not to compare it to editing of today’s cinema, or even to say that it was “too slow” or the like. The best way to describe the feeling of viewing a Bresson film, is unique. I felt like he was trying to tell me things through certain images which maybe, in reality, had nothing to say at all! For example, you’ll notice many scenes in Michel’s apartment involve images of the door or the doorjamb or the door lock. This can lead the viewer to believe there is something maybe lurking in the apartment, or something outside the door, etc. But that seems to never be the case. It’s quite engaging actually.
Anyway, the best part of the film is when, after all their work in the train station, the other two men are caught and arrested. Again, Michel gets away. When he gets home though, he is faced with the detective who let him go last time he was caught. He tells Michel a story which brings his mother and his female counterpart, Jeanne, into the plot. It’s at this point when Michel takes off, leaving France for Italy and then England where he spends and undetermined amount of time pickpocketing and living a life of debauchery, before he returns “as if by accident” to the place he called home. (Hell, I’m pretty sure he’s even in the same suit as when he left.)
I won’t spoil the end here, but let’s just say that Bresson fits, in the space of ten minutes, an entirely new plot and storyline into this film which had been stringing us along ever so slightly in one direction the previous seventy. I love quotes, and Michel’s final line to Jeanne pretty much sums up the whole purpose of Bresson’s approach (and maybe even style), “Oh, Jeanne. To reach you at last, what a strange path I had to take.”