Criterion Cuts: “Pickpocket”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

Today’s movie comes from the depths of ‘Criterion movies I saw before this article was a thing’, which is a relatively small but potent group of films that were the impetus for me to start writing seriously (and regularly) about what I was watching in the first place. The act of revisiting a movie is something I do very rarely anymore, to be honest. I feel besieged by things I haven’t seen and should have, a constant sense that no matter how much I watch I am constantly falling behind.

But, admittedly, the act of returning to movies equipped with greater knowledge is always fascinating. Some movies, having fallen poorly the first time, suddenly blossom into magical reversals. Others, remembered fondly, are cast in a stark new unflattering light. And some simply refine, the mellow aging of something built to withstand the scrutiny of a person at multiple points in their life. Which is a perfect segue into my feelings on today’s movie.

Pickpocket (1959)

It would be easy to mistake Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket for something less than the sum of it’s parts. It is a resolutely modest picture, with no standout performances and a sensibility that is so low key it feels almost effortless and therefor altogether too easy. It passes its short run time with a story that is certainly well worn (the comparisons to Crime and Punishment have been belabored to death), but with an eye to the minutiae that bespeaks to a subtler, more internal understanding of its subject matter.

Pickpocket is, as you might expect, the story of a thief. This thief is Michel (Martin LaSalle), a young man who is just getting into the game. He seems drawn to thievery through as much obsession as necessity, and from the first moment we see him steal from a woman with a mix of exhilaration and almost sensual fixation. Unfortunately, he isn’t nearly as good as he is eager, and he ends up being picked up by police who know that he stole the money, but can’t prove it. The inspector (Jean Pélégri) sends Michel on his way, with the stern condemnation that he’s got his eye out for him.

The story mostly revolves then around Michel’s growth into his chosen profession, to the dismay of those around him. This mostly means Jeanne (Marika Green), a young woman who tends to Michel’s dying mother and seems equally concerned for him and his seemingly shirked responsibilities. Michel is a classical obsessive loner, pushing away everyone around him, living in a small empty apartment that is little more than a bed, a table, and some books. Here Michel locks himself away from the world, self-styling himself as something Other.

Michel's furtive attempts to pickpocket never shy away from feeling sexually predatory.

Much of the movie revolves around exploring Michel’s adventures in petty theft, filmed with an eye for the touches that bring us along into Michel’s mindset. During his next few attempts, he steals bits and pieces from people on the subway, each time with the sweaty, overexcited expression of an adolescent doing something lurid. There’s no mistaking the sexual overtones of these thefts, ultimately acts of violation and intrusion, done up close, shots all of faces and probing hands and the sudden rush of even small successes. Michel is a fumbling teen in these scenes, barely successful in unhooking his first bra.

Eventually Michel discovers another pickpocket (listed in the credits only as Kassagi) who has been at this far longer and has done far better than Michel. What springs up between them is an apprenticeship that is coded just as much as a seduction. The two spot each other in the wild, each going about their jobs. They meet at a bar, nothing of import said between them. Retreating from the back room, the other man proceeds to rapidly show Michel just how much he has to learn. The lengthy montage that follows plays out like a dance, as the two men (and eventually a third accomplice) pull off a string of thefts on a number of targets, on the street and on trains and in various other places. Indeed, this is the most playful part of the movie, as the three men working in tandem can so deftly dance around their mark that in one sequence they even put the wallet back on the man they’ve stolen from after taking out all the money.

Soon, of course, the fun dries up. Michel’s mother dies, and Michel is left with no family and only the dim sense that Jeanne has an attraction to him and wants him to stick around. Unfortunately, Michel is ultimately self-loathing, and the idea that he would somehow get involved with someone he sees as pure and remote as Jeanne is beyond his comprehension. Instead, he throws himself into his work, taking more and more risks and slowly coming closer to getting caught. Eventually he comes into a full showdown with the inspector that has been lingering around him the whole movie, where the inspector admits to knowing he’s a thief and Michel not bothering to hide it, the two men taking full stock of each other and knowing exactly how their game is going to end. Michel breaks first, and flees the country.

Michel's pining is some of the only natural emotion he shows. But he's always a tightly wound mess of frustrations.

Two years pass in a sentence of narration, and Michel returns exactly as he left, no wiser or better off for having stolen his way through Europe. But he returns to find Jeanne, now a single mother of a child, still patiently waiting for him. Something in him breaks, seemingly, seeing her like this. Perhaps it’s the loss of her purity that makes her suddenly okay to feel for, a distinctly Catholic sensibility that wouldn’t be out of place in Scorsese’s filmography. Or maybe it’s that he has reached the end of his efforts to fight his self-destruction. Either way, he offers to help with the baby and starts stealing for money again, getting caught in a sting operation so obvious that he knows he is picking the pocket of a cop waiting for him to try but unable to resist.

Pickpocket ends on a moment of false hope, then, with Michel in jail and professing his love for Jeanne as she visits him. Yet, this is Michel in a full, literal state of arrest. There’s nowhere to run, no place to turn his obsessions to. He can profess all he wants from behind bars, and Jeanne can react with the patience of a saint, but he’s shown no capability for feeling before this point and why should he when he is once again returned to the outside world? It’s a happy ending, but one that the script knows is as false as it feels to the audience watching. It’s a deft turn, finally acknowledging just how unreliable a narrator and hero we’ve been following, the final triumph of the story and those watching it over its subjects.

The romance is played straight, but put up against the rest of the movie is as deeply cynical as the characters mired in it.

This is a lot of portent to dump upon a film as genuinely small as Pickpocket, but it bears the scrutiny well. It’s a movie of muted style, but loads of it, to the point that it seemingly cares more about style for style’s sake than anything else. That may be true, but I’d substitute style for craft. The movie is focused intently on the small actions, the slick machinations of the dozens of thefts it depicts, because that’s what it’s all about for Michel. In that way, the film is simply sympathetic to his fixations. It is, like all great films, about putting us in the mind and world of someone else, and any reliance upon style only reflects that of its protagonist. Pickpocket is–like the hero we pity, sympathize with, and yet condemn for being his own undoing–far too complex for such simple definitions.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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