Pickpocket (1959)

Robert Bresson is considered one of France’s greatest directors and apparently an inspiration for the New Wave filmmakers. We’ve never watched any of his films so I thought we should, starting with this relatively short piece that is supposed to be one his best works.

Michel is a budding thief who affects a cynical detachment from the rest of society. He successfully pickpockets some money at the racetrack but is picked up by the police as he leaves. The police have insufficient evidence to hold him so he is released but from that point on the inspector keeps an eye on him. Michel has a friend named Jacques who tries to persuade him to take a proper job. He also meets Jeanne, a neighbor of his ailing mother who helps take care of her. He is willing to pass money to his mother when he can but seems to be too ashamed to actually meet her. When questioned, he espouses a philosophy in which thieves are a superior form of man who by dint of their innate talent and their incompatibility with the usual rules of society should not be bound by them.

As with other French New Wave works, the tone and focus of the film is so different from what we’re normally used to that it’s a challenge to come to grips with what it’s actually about. It doesn’t help either that the actor who plays Michel, Martin LaSalle, is so devoid of any emotional affect. I suppose it does give the impression that Michel is something of a sociopath. Things make a bit more sense after I read that it’s a very loose adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment but I’m not sure that I really like it. Even the pickpocketing scenes which I understand is meant to be thrilling to the audience isn’t all that exciting by modern standards.

I get this this is meant to be a somewhat abstract examination of the mind of a criminal psychology, complete with inconsistencies and contradictions. But this one’s a bit too abstract and too emotionally distant for me and it lacks even the kind of creative brilliance that would impress me. As my wife notes, perhaps this film is important for historical reasons but we didn’t really get much out of it.

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