Four Frames: Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959)

Few directors are as interested in the interiority of their characters as Robert Bresson. His ascetic style strips films of their furnishings, leaving behind a bareness of images and sounds, to be seen and heard with intensified awareness, as if we stand in the protagonist’s shoes during his most private moments. Pickpocket is one of Bresson’s earlier films, in which we see him beginning to refine this formal austerity – its focus on Michel, an estranged man and amateur pickpocket, allows Bresson to use Michel’s sparse existence for an exercise in interiorised drama.

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Bresson’s most notorious technique was his use of ‘models’. These non-professional actors were directed until they were drained of emotion or theatricality. Their purpose is to mirror the mundane, habitual behaviours that’s familiar to us all and yet most other films leave out. Martin LaSalle is one of Bresson’s most memorable models due to his lean, angular look. We are drawn to his bony, brooding face for how it expresses Michel’s weariness and disaffection brought upon by prolonged solitude. His languorous gaze belongs to a man more concerned with his inner life than with the wider world around him.

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Through Pickpocket’s elliptical narrative, we parse that Michel may not be entirely alienated from others – he has two friends, Jacques and Jeanne – but we never see their cordial moments, only the ‘flat’ moments where their conversations dry up. When they spend a day at a carnival, Michel and Jeanne share a table together but stare in different directions, as if taking a break from the rides, which are never actually shown. Similarly, Michel is followed by a detective, but it never feels like a cat and mouse chase. Scenes of isolation and inertia take precedence over any other.

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When Michel is picking pockets, there is almost a sense of relief from the overbearing atmosphere of inhibition and unease. The images of wallets and watches exchanging hands have a graceful rhythm, as if dancing to an unheard waltz. In fact, neither music nor human voices are heard; the use of natural sounds indicate Michel’s disconnection from others, but also amplifies the tension as we find ourselves more alert of Michel’s surroundings. Such moments are perversely fascinating; for Michel, the petty thefts are elating. They stir in him a sense of secreted intimacy and control over others which he can’t grasp elsewhere.

“The ear goes more toward the within, the eye toward the outer,” Bresson once wrote in Notes on Cinematography, explaining why he used music so sparingly. Music is also not used whether Michel is at a subway station, a fairground or at a racetrack; instead, we hear subway screeches, luggage trolley wheels squeaking and ticket machines chugging. This keeps us at arm’s length, engaged with Michel’s repressed state rather than with any externalised emotion.

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This changes in Pickpocket’s final scene, which had a notable influence on Paul Schrader. The American film-maker described Pickpocket as ‘transcendental’, but it is unclear why until it reaches its final moments. Michel has finally been imprisoned, but is visited by Jeanne. They kiss through the prison bars. “Oh Jeanne, to reach you at last,” he says, as music swells like in a Hollywood melodrama. Michel at last feels a connection with another, and Bresson accordingly frees the audience to move from their immanent state and towards something greater.

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