Arts & Culture

29th December 2020

Obsession and Regret in Paris – Pickpocket (1959) Review

In a world where all seems dead, how would you find meaning? Michel, a young and disaffected idler, fills his hours with bouts of petty theft.

His gaunt face unmoving as he effortlessly parts people with their valuables, his sheer obsession with the act betraying how much jouissance it brings him. With little time for anything else, even his ailing mother, Michel spends his free time honing his skills in his sparse and decrepit flat. A false sense of importance, delusions of grandeur even, lead him to justify his actions to others, even going as far as to argue that thieves of his kin are a benefit to society.

With only minor plot lines flowing through the film, Michel brushes them aside, treating them as mere distractions until it’s too late. The significance of his mother’s failing health and the potential love interest in Jeanne (the shy and dutiful neighbour who cares for his mother) evade him while he focuses on becoming one with the networks of crowds he plans to despoil.

That said, thievery does more for Michel than simply filling his emptiness — it provides him with a way to escape the misery and capture of a regular job in the inequitable Parisian economy. Of course, Michel hasn’t really ‘cheated’ the system, he’s just another part of it, justifying upper-class disgust of the masses, justifying the police and the prisons.

In typical Bresson fashion, the film is uncomfortably empty. The lack of music and emotion reverberate off the walls of the run-down apartment complex the main characters inhabit. Even the dialogue is empty — perhaps an attempt by Bresson to reflect the pointlessness of most everyday conversation in the audience’s lives. This spartan atmosphere helps paint a vivid image of a Paris where the stark realities of post-war living have begun to kick in.

Although emotionally vacant, the film does have moments of subtle, dry humour. For example, at one point a tearful Jeanne asks Michel “are you going away” to which Michel confidently replies “no no” — only for the next sequence to be that of Michel gathering his belongings and immediately leaving the country. Similarly, later in the film Jeanne stands up to leave and Michel says “stay” and almost the instant Jeanne sits back down, Michel abruptly walks away himself.

The film has a minimal yet distinct visual style and contains some excellent sequences such as the elaborate chain of theft Michel and his compatriots pull off in the train station. Smooth camera movement, precise zooms and meticulously choreographed feats of sleight of hand all result in a satisfying display of Michel’s progression into an experienced criminal. Bresson’s commitment to a ‘less is more’ philosophy (or perhaps more accurately, an ‘empty the pond to get the fish’ one) leads to an overall tidy and natural feeling production.

A compelling window into Michel’s world with a broader narrative arc (which many critics liken to that of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment), Bresson’s Pickpocket is a great way to spend an hour and a quarter descending into the unliving life of a 1950s Parisian miscreant.