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Film review: Pickpocket (Of Sin and Salvation season, BFI)

17 June 2022

Stephen Brown revisits a devout film-maker

PICKPOCKET (Cert. PG) begins with a disclaimer: “This film is not a thriller.” That may be so, but this re-released 1959 film does have great moments of tension as it unites two souls through an act of grace. The movie’s director, Robert Bresson (1901-99), a devout Roman Catholic, is considered a giant by many critics and filmmakers alike for a style like no one else’s. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there are many who have since adopted his spare and austere methods in their own work.

His work is regularly showcased in retrospectives around the world, and it is once again the turn of the British Film Institute (BFI) to host a Bresson season, “Of Sin and Salvation”, at its theatre on the South Bank in London.

Pickpocket is based on Crime and Punishment, Bresson’s first foray into Dostoevsky, but by no means his last. Here, Michel (Martin LaSalle, at the time an untrained actor) experiences what Bresson called a “terrible solitude that is a thief’s prison”. It isolates Michel from others, including his ailing mother, from whom he has stolen money. An image of banknotes — representing filthy lucre’s ability to corrupt the human soul — immediately follows Michel’s opening voiceover, which (reminiscent of Bresson’s Diary of A Country Priest) accompanies his writing about his “deeds”.

He is referring to those petty thefts, which he justifies to the police inspector (Jean Pelegri) as the entitlement of supermen “whose consciences select them” to behave irrespective of any laws. Whether he ultimately considers himself to be one of Nietzsche’s Übermenschen remains an enigma, as indeed does much of Michel’s erratic behaviour. His questioning of normative (one might say Christian) morality may transpire as being a form of ambivalent self-scrutiny. Whether it is Adam and Eve (about whom Bresson longed to make a film) or Michel, it’s a case of pride going before the fall.

Yet we witness his compassion as well as the misdemeanours. He experiences his mother’s forgiveness and also the unconditional love of a young woman, Jeanne (Marika Green). Reflecting on this, Michel speaks of “the strange path I had to take” to reach what the writer-director Paul Schrader has described as a transcendental moment. It is a cinematic style in which there is a movement away from a “cold, unfeeling world” into a “striving towards the ineffable and invisible”. Schrader himself has made several films employing this technique, notably American Gigolo (1980), which he openly acknowledges owes a debt to Pickpocket.

Bresson’s films are markedly minimalist. Action is pared down in preference to a use of image and sound to tell its tale of transgression and redemption through divine grace. His laconic people search for meaning in the bleak world that they are regarding. Echoing some words of Fra Giovanni Giocondo (c.1433-1515), the director is beseeching us, like his characters, to look beyond the gloom of the world and see that within our reach is joy. For this to happen requires discerning viewers not to judge by outward appearances, but to interpret for themselves what is going on inside each character and, in the process, interrogate those feelings deep within ourselves which God alone knows about.

In cinemas and available on Blu-ray from the BFI Shop (phone 020 7815 1350) or via www.bfi.org.uk/shop. Details of the BFI’s Bresson season at: whatson.bfi.org.uk

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