Watching an old movie - and old, foreign-language movie, no less - requires a lot more effort to get started than other films, Sight & Sound pedigree or not. But when that movie is Pickpocket, which is under 80 minutes long, the thought of the time sink becomes a lot easier to digest. Seriously, it takes more time to watch two episodes of Breaking Bad than it does to watch Pickpocket. You all need to go see this. Watch it on Hulu.
This is another film by the French auteur of rigorous style, Robert Bresson, and the follow-up to his masterful A Man Escaped. It concerns a destitute and aimless man named Michel, who lives in a ramshackle room in Paris. He refuses to get a job, despite having a sick and very poor mother who could use any spare money he makes. He has a friend or two, but their relationship is distant, comprised mostly of his friends imploring him to look for work and to get out of the house.
When Michel speaks, it is mostly self aggrandizement about how he is superior to the sheeple around him, and how he deserves not to have to work for a living because of this. If he sounds familiar, it's probably because you read Crime and Punishment in high school, whose protagonist, Raskolnikov, shared the same view. Unlike Raskolnikov, Michel does not test the boundaries of his morality by bumping off a nasty, old lady. Rather, he chooses to spend his time picking the pockets of random passersby.
Like his Russian counterpart, Michel doesn't seem to do it for the free money he gains from it. He is a thief because of the skill involved, and how his endless practicing of surreptitiously detaching wristwatches from the wrist-like legs of his table is rewarded by actual wristwatches once he's in the field. We have learned from the movies that many thieves and bank robbers do what they do for the love and thrill of it. Judging by Michel's frequently impassive face, he doesn't seem to be all that thrilled by his pursuits, but this is a Bresson film, where their actions speak louder than any amount of talk-talking or emoting ever would. We know Michel loves picking pockets because he barely does anything else.
To use the words of NPR's Glen Weldon, I am a process nerd. Consequently, my favorite parts of this film were the ones in which Michel links up, seemingly telepathically, with fellow pickpockets in order for them to hone their trade together and to pull off more elaborate tricks. The best scene is one of bravura editing and timing, in which Michel and two cohorts steal from roughly half a dozen people in and around a train station. We see classically Bressonian shots of hands, which slink effortlessly into the coat pockets of men and the inviting, zipper-mouths of women's purses. There is a tantalizing and yet troubling sense of violation in these meticulously choreographed movements. They make you realize just how vulnerable you are in public spaces, and how flimsy is the social contract that stops most people from stealing from one another.
I personally found the story of redemption Bresson closes his film to clash with the austere aesthetic he establishes with the first two-thirds of the film. Many people have discussed the ending of the film, in which Michel finally learns to embrace the unconditional love of a "good woman," a person which Bresson barely bothers to characterize beyond her beauty and devotion. Even Jean-Luc Godard quotes it visually at the end of his own crime tale, Breathless. The ending feels abrupt and weirdly mawkish, considering Bresson's nigh-allergic avoidance of sentimentality in the rest of his work. But the rest of the film is so good that it makes the ending worth it.