Review: Robert Bresson’s ‘Pickpocket’ (1959)

+ Recommended – NR, Crime, Drama (76 minutes)


Pickpocket (1959) was part of the French New Wave. These films sought to tell a moral tale, one in which some sort of redemption occurred with the main protagonists. Michel (Martin LaSalle) thrives from life off the simple concept of thieving. It’s a life in which he can’t escape due to his very strong temptations placed upon him from the objects around him; both money and various valuables. And the camera focuses heavily on these objects, showing their movement in space and time by tracking them through crowds of people or showing the transfer of money from a patron to a vendor. The audience is in the position of Michel during the majority of the film.

Director Robert Bresson utilizes extreme eye matches from one character to another adding a sub-textual layer to each relationship, especially between the detectives and Michel. He also emphasizes that each room or set exists before and after a character enters and leaves the location. This is even more effective considering that the film was shot on location, on actual busy subway stations to jails. The world feels lived in, because it is, and it gives you a sense of isolation around the main character. He might be a thief, but in a sense, he appears very lonely to the audience; especially after his mother passes away.

There are numerous reaction shots, which differ from the eye matches slightly. One notable sequence is at the very beginning, during the horse race. Michel is looking for his next target and has found one. As he creeps up on the unsuspecting victim, he remains stiff. But when he unclips the hook on the purse, he blinks to reveal that he does feel relieved that the woman didn’t notice. The sharp cuts enhance the effectiveness of the tension during the sequence.

At just a little over an hour, the run time feels quick. It doesn’t sulk in a lengthy, tedious progression, and there is little fat around the edges. Its pace is evenly dispersed using narration and a flashback-styled approach. In a matter of seconds, one scene shows Michel fleeing Paris from the law and then returning with a passage of two years. Not only does it reflect consistency with the pace, but it also establishes character growth without needless exposition that would only drown the run time.

Most scenes lack much for a musical score, and when it does appear, it’s only briefly and typically consists of a classical score. Bresson would rather have the audience reflect on what’s happening on screen than focus on a score that could potentially be distracting for audiences. It would takeaway from the brilliance of having nonprofessional actors portraying layered characters in a silent space.            

Having audiences sympathizing with Marika Green’s character (Jeanne) earlier in the film ensures the emotional impact of the ending resonates and provides a sense of fulfillment. It’s clear she has feelings for Michel, but he’s too blinded by his love of theft and greed. Judging by the scarcity of his apartment, only owning books and a bed, it’s clear that his intentions are solely focused on the life of theft that he has lived. So, when he comes around to the realization that Jeanne wants the best for him and that his life isn’t full without some type of relationship, it’s a relief for both her and the audience. There’s clearly a moral center of the film surrounding how human nature or greed can corrupt otherwise beautiful aspects of life.

Image via IMDB
Image via IMDB

Author: Jared Charles

I am the owner of The Burrow Reviews. Currently studying Film, English, Political Science, and Gender Studies.

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