Pickpocket Review

Noel Megahey reviews UK DVD release of Robert Bresson’s ‘Pickpocket’, released in a superb 2-disc edition by Artificial Eye.

The lack of Robert Bresson films on DVD until recently is hard to comprehend, but this is gradually being addressed with UK versions of the fine editions recently released in France – Nouveau Pictures bringing out the Arte releases of Mouchette and Au Hazard Balthazar, and Artificial Eye with the MK2 releases of Pickpocket, L’Argent and The Trial of Joan of Arc. These releases are long overdue and will surely bring one of the most unconventional and individual filmmaking talents to a public that has more or less forgotten him. Bresson was certainly recognised at his time for making films that have little in common with those of his contemporaries, in his refusal to use trained actors, follow conventional plots or even conform to normal film running times. Although Pickpocket – one of the director’s most dazzlingly brilliant films from a formal perspective using this unique approach – seems to fit in with the popular French crime-thriller movies of the period, in reality, as the director states in the text preceding the film, it has much more to say about the individual and their longing for spiritual meaning in their lives.

Michel (Martin Lassalle) is unable to keep a job and feels that all the positions that his friend Jacques (Pierre Leymarie) manages to set up for him are beneath a man of his intelligence. He needs to live however and, believing that society owes him, and resorts to stealing people’s wallets. Initially he is not very good but, falling in with a group of thieves and getting lessons from an experienced pickpocket, Michel moves from the random pickings of the Paris underground to elaborate operations on banks and train stations. More than just making money however, Michel feels an elation at asserting his superiority over other people and being beyond the law. But the thrill of evading the police is not enough – Michel needs to actively challenge the police to catch him, meeting a police detective (Jean Pélégri) in a bar and expounding his theories that certain gifted and intelligent people should be free to disobey laws that are restrictive on their freedom of expression and their abilities.

Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket is filmmaking on another scale entirely. With its cool efficiency, neutral performances by unknown and untrained actors, relying heavily on an economy of dialogue and gesture, Bresson’s style was markedly different from other films of the period and, although his style was very influential on the French New Wave of the 60’s, Bresson’s style and level of artistry even now remains unique. Pickpocket is the perfect example of the Bressonian style, meticulous in its technical presentation, almost documentary-like in its precision of detail and cool narrative voiceover, clear and efficient in its laying out the plot and carrying it through with economy of shots and dialogue. Bresson works just like the pickpockets themselves – up-close and personal. The viewer feels a genuine sense of unease and discomfort in the company of these thieves, the simple ease with which they move in on people, invade their space and effectively violate them without their being aware of it. The celebrated ‘Gare de Lyon’ scene of the pickpockets in efficient activity is both thrilling and terrifying at the same time.

More than being finely crafted however, Bresson generates these feelings of unease on the viewer quite deliberately, further layering on depths of psychological complexity and philosophical questioning. Michel’s views on the superiority of certain individuals and society’s need to allow them freedom to operate unfettered is nothing new – as he admits – their roots go back past Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ which the film is partly based on (particularly evident in the character’s reaching out for validation and comprehension, challenging the world to catch him, yet in part wanting to be caught in order to achieve a spiritual cleansing or understanding), past Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, right back to Plato’s ideal of the Philosopher King. At the same time however, Bresson ties the film into French Existentialism in the solitariness of Michel’s activities (even the crooks he works with know nothing about each other) and the loneliness of a life of “pain tinged with pleasure” in the subplot (although in reality it is the subplot that is the essence of the film and the key to Michel’s salvation) of Michel’s dying mother and his inability to reach out to Jeanne (Marika Green), the woman who loves him. These are complex issues to get across on film, but Bresson never labours them, conveying these points almost invisibly through the actors and his particular techniques, reaching beyond dramatic theatricality and even beyond hard realism. There is not a frame of this brief, concise film that isn’t purposeful, containing a wealth of insight and meaning.

DVDPickpocket is released on DVD in the UK by Artificial Eye. The DVD is encoded for Region 2. A port of the French MK2 release, the DVD is however released as a two-disc set (although when both discs are single-layer, why bother?). Despite being a 2-disc set however the DVD can be picked up at a very favourable price currently from the Bensonsworld link on this page. The DVD contains both English and French menus. The menus on the extras disc however revert back to French after one of the options is selected.

VideoThe picture quality is excellent showing good detail and a range of greyscale tones. It is not highly contrasted however and some scenes look rather greyish. Nor is the picture perfectly sharp, showing a slight softness throughout. One or two signs of areas not completely fixed by the restoration work, but they are rare and scarcely more than a flicker here and there. Overall, this is an impressive transfer of the film.

AudioThe original mono soundtrack is never going to be highly dynamic or make use of a surround sound system, but it is very faithfully reproduced here on the DVD, with clarity and detail in the noises and sound effects on the soundtrack, and no background noise or distortion.

SubtitlesOptional English subtitles are included and are fine, clear and read well. There are additional subtitles in German, Spanish and Italian.

ExtrasInterview with Robert Bresson (6:27)Bresson is subjected to tough questions by two interviewers for a 1960 French television programme. The director is interrogated on the sentiments Pickpocket evokes, his techniques and how his work differs from most contemporary cinema. A fascinating feature.

The Models of Pickpocket (52:14)This film by Babette Mangolte tracks down Pierre Leymaire in Caen, Marika Green in Austria and Martin Lassalle in Mexico to examine how Bresson made use of actors, which he would call ‘models’ or ‘interpreters’. Leymaire – now a professor in a genetics research laboratory – reflects on how, by using actors not seen in any other film, Bresson would keep a freshness and uniqueness about his films and how the neutrality of the uninflected voice allows the viewers to make their own personal identification with the character. Green talks about the unique experience of being a female in a Bresson film and the sureness of youth that makes anything possible. Lassalle is a fascinating character, living in Mexico City, he talks about the “strange path” that life has taken him personally to where he is now and goes into detail on how a number of scenes in Pickpocket were filmed. This is an excellent film that appropriately shows the people rather than the actors.

Around Pickpocket (12:57)At an April 2000 post-screening Q&A with an audience, Jean-Pierre Améris, Paul Vecchiali and Marika Green talk with insight and humour about Bresson’s shooting technique and the influence of Bresson on modern cinema.

Kassagi (11:34)Kassagi was responsible for the sleight of hand techniques employed in the pickpocketing scenes in the film. This television archive footage shows Kassagi in his cabaret show, performing his tricks on an audience. It’s also fully subtitled.

Trailer (2:32)A nifty little trailer gives some idea of the film’s nature and style.

OverallPickpocket is a film that can be endlessly examined and looked at in different ways and admired not just as a remarkable and inimitable piece of filmmaking technique, but as a film with many fascinating ideas to consider. The DVD does justice to a truly classic film. Both film and DVD are magnificent.


Updated: Apr 30, 2005

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