Christian’s Cinematic Syntax: “Pickpocket”

“My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, place in a certain order and projected onto a screen, come to life again like flowers in water.”
— Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer

The 1959 film directed by Robert Bresson, Pickpocket, is a mosaic of human complexity as much as it is a defiance of morality through a character that is uncertain of life. The film is incredibly literary in its executions — being heavily inspired by Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment —with a director puppeteering his actors to escape his opinion of superficiality and including a main character that narrates throughout. Relating to my previous post on the auteur theory, Bresson was one of the directors that these theorists actually admired. He has a distinct presentation of his philosophy in his films, making him a quintessential image of an auteur. Pickpocket is no exception.

The Bressonian style emerges with its presentation of  lifestyle, specifically one of a person who identifies with the profession of a pickpocket. The image of this specific pickpocket is what Bresson and his cinematographer, Léonce-Henri Burel, present through exceptional camerawork, which consists of tightly framed close-ups that make the viewer pay witness to these crimes. The camera also places no negative opinion on these crimes, being indifferent to these sequences and allowing the audience to create a positive or negative judgement.

*Spoilers ahead*

Martin LaSalle, an unprofessional actor, gives us a stupendous performance as the main character, Michel. It’s a performance based on subtlety, with his acting always feeling genuine and highly controlled. The character itself has an indifference to everything and does not have the archetypal good persona. He is a defiant; a person who is unconventional in his lifestyle and one who is away from common morality.

The cold gaze that Martin LaSalle possesses presents his character as one similar to that of Meursault from Albert Camus’ famous French novella, L’etranger, another character that does not have any significant feelings toward his surroundings. This is proven through Michel’s actions, with his constant thievery that does not cease until his arrest. A description of Martin LaSalle’s performance can almost be documented as merely underwhelming, which is not necessarily a negative. But, I could see a typical audience member not being completely enthused at Martin LaSalle’s acting ability, or Robert Bresson’s particular style of filmmaking.

The particular style is a rejection of over-stylizing, as well as a choice of simplicity, which is the entire basis of Bresson’s mise en scène. In Pickpocket, Bresson stresses this simplicity through his mise en scène with frames that have baseline lighting and nothing visually stimulating. He chooses to focus more on the objects in frame, rather than oversaturating the frame with visual messages. Every scene of thievery presents key objects, which are usually the items that the pickpocket, Michel, wants for monetary gain. The train theft is a perfect representation of the under stylization of mise en scène; the objects (watches, wallets, money) are all center stage in close-ups as the group of pickpockets pursue them. This method works well for this subject matter; the simplicity adding a layer of emphasis to the object presented. The mise en scène is consistent throughout, with simplicity being more of substance rather than densely filled frames.

The film has a specific scene that is a culmination of the elements that Bresson includes throughout. I’m speaking of the sequence at the racetrack at the film’s climax, which bridges the beginning racetrack scene where Michel gets caught to the present. This beginning scene is foreshadowing the final situation, since Michel is about to get caught again. This scene uses the simplicity and tight framing of the character among other patrons of the racetrack.

With Martin LaSalle’s eyes wandering, because an undercover policeman tempts him with a large sum of money, the tension is made well-known, and we are led from this tension to the conclusion that Michel will be caught. This is made apparent because of the camera’s intense focus, which is done with genius execution. The sound of the handcuff is resonating, attaching on Michel and showing the fate he has chosen. No longer a part of the “supermen,” and being thrown away in prison, Michel is forever lost within himself and has lost a chance with love.

This film is nothing short of fantastic, although I feel that Bresson has a style that is translated better in other examples of his work. Pickpocket is a solid and immensely, intricately executed film; one that immerses itself within the lifestyle it portrays. Not a single moment is used for a manner that is unnecessary and frivolous within its direction. This is a film that is really a Bressonian expression of what he is about, although not to the perfection of a translation to the general public. In general, Bresson’s work is well-crafted, and Pickpocket is a must watch to truly understand the magnitude of the impact that Robert Bresson had on French Cinema.

4 out of 5

— Christian Mietus, Film Blogger

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