(Robert Bresson, France, 1959)


The Prince of Pickpocket


There is a prominent credit at the start of Pickpocket to the mysteriously named Kassagi, who is not only part of the cast as ‘Accomplice 1’ but, even more importantly, ‘Technical Adviser for the Thieves’ Gestures’. And what gestures they are! Nimble fingers that steal into breast pockets, a hand that drops a wallet in a split-second beat down to another hand (his own or someone else’s), swift movements that transfer an object from a newspaper to a bag to a coat …


Robert Bresson may well have found Kassagi in the criminal underworld. Cinematographer Léonce-Henry Burel tells the story of a day on set when, due to complex outdoor filming, several gendarmes were present to supervise crowds and traffic. At the end of the day, Kassagi took these cops to the pub – where he revealed to them every key, wallet and watch he had surreptitiously stolen from them while they worked. (1) After the film wrapped, Kassagi was too well known to return to a life of crime. Instead, he started on a successful career as a music-hall and cabaret entertainer. His magic skill of prestidigitation moved from streets and train stations to the showbiz stage.  


Pickpocket is all about the transformation of an identity. Michel (Martin Lasalle) represents the fanciful temptation of living beyond the law. Depending on what you bring to the film, this character is an archetype derived from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or French existentialist philosophy; or he is a rebel-hero who anticipates the restless anarchism of any period in any country since. Babette Mangolte, who made the wonderful documentary Pickpocket’s Models (2003) first saw the film a year before the events of May 1968; for her it expressed “what it is to be a student in Paris and also the desire to be a criminal, which is a profound insight into people’s desires.” (2)


For this reason, Michel is also a superb figure of cinema. He is single-minded, obsessed, driven; but also an ascetic, bookworm intellectual (and hence the model for Paul Schrader’s leading men from Taxi Driver [1976] to Light Sleeper [1991] and beyond). He is caught up in an escalating thrill that Bresson captures so well in each new, extravagant round of thievery – culminating in a veritable group-ballet of three pickpockets that rivals the finest piece of Hollywood musical choreography. He is an amalgam of both Gangster (increasingly suspicious and paranoid, like Scorsese’s Henry Hill in Goodfellas [1990]) and Artist (always pre-visualising, rehearsing, staging …  directing).


Pickpocket exists to take this fascinating character through the gauntlet of his own fixated, solipsistic desire  … but to where, exactly? Commentators on the film have given this destination at the end of Michel’s journey many names, often with a religious ring: Grace, Fate, Predestination, Redemption, Providence. Filmmaker Marco Bellocchio puts it in simpler, earthier terms: “The madness of a man … is defeated by … a beautiful woman, who [is] not mad”. (3) Michel’s last-moment swerve towards humanity (and normality) has been copied in dozens of subsequent films, almost never convincingly. What secret Bressonian ingredient are they lacking or missing?


Whatever it is can surely be found in those thieves’ gestures. Bresson chanced here – perhaps while watching Kassagi at work – upon the immortal fusion of his content (his themes and philosophies) and his form, that famous method, system or syntax which belongs authentically to him and nobody else. The deep mystery of Pickpocket is: what moves Michel? What leads him to his decisive moment of change, transformation? To put it another way, it is the mystery of cause and effect – in that realm that both bridges and separates fiction (where linear cause-and-effect chains come easy) from life and philosophy (strong case: Paul Ricoeur’s life-long reflections on time, narrative and Freudian psychoanalysis).


But this mystery is not going to be solved by recourse either to Hollywood-style linear classicism (where the Hero’s Will is the cause and drives forward to the ultimately desired effect) or to the limply spiritual bromide that “Fate works in mysterious ways” (or, a popular Bressonian axiom, “the wind blows where it will”). Nor will it do to desert ideas of cause and effect altogether for the sake of some ideal of anti-narrative or Surrealism Unbound (à la Ruiz). Raymond Durgnat aptly evokes Chaos Theory to conjure the tangle of factors that move Michel on (4) – but there is something in the film far closer and more precise to hand, whereby Bresson stalks this mystery.


Pickpocketing is, quite literally, the movement, the action, of something mysterious in the world. This is the stroke of genius in Bresson’s film, to find this correlative which is never just a symbol or a metaphor. The act, the gesture, the process of pickpocketing is physically visible, and yet swifter than the camera-eye or viewer-eye can register; now you see it, but you don’t. Bresson, with the close-up inserts of details he loves so much, abstracts this action of theft: there is no longer a criminal and a victim, but only parts of bodies, dancing, interchangeable, fused into a rhythm that calls up the lush music of Lully …


You can call this movement of a trans-personal force in the world something Divine, a Spirit or Soul; or you can quit the heavenly metaphors and think of it as the movement of Eros, a chaste but thrillingly intense sexuality within the bustling, metropolitan everyday. But the greatness of Bresson’s best films lies in the way that we can never finally adjudicate between, or even separate, the material and the spiritual, the ecstasy of the transcendent and the ecstasy of the flesh. Mystery, in Bresson, is also an entertainment, a performance, a magic-show. The sublime category of Mystery can easily carry the weight of the vulgar.


A preliminary text from the auteur advises us that the style of Pickpocket is “not that of a thriller”. He’s kidding, isn’t he? Bresson had already made one of the most thrilling, suspenseful films in cinema history (the Resistance prison tale A Man Escaped, 1956), and he would do it again in Pickpocket. It is hard to imagine Bresson had not seen the opening of Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953), and impossible for a cinephile not to think ahead to Jean-Pierre Melville’s maniacally detailed crime procedurals like Le Samouraļ (1967).


But Bressonian suspense, it is true, has nothing much to do with Hollywood’s, or Hitchcock’s, techniques. Bresson worked with a savagely pared-down economy of elements focused on with blinding concentration; that is what we would be prone, these days, to call minimalism, if it did not rocket the narrative of Pickpocket forward with an elliptical pace that is completely exhilarating.


Disarming, too. There is something almost outrageous, quietly comic, in Bresson’s stylisations. (He loved the screen-and-circus comedy of Tati, Keaton, Chaplin.) Take a look and listen to the first three shots: after the preliminary image of Michel writing his account, there is a dissolve to a woman’s gloved hand (it, too, could be criminal!) daintily transferring money from a purse to a male hand; this old chap, now shown full-body, walks over to a betting booth, as the sound (even more than the image or setting) informs us that we are at a racetrack; this man, at the end of his action, turns and shoots a sudden suspicious glance off-screen. Cut to Michel, static but alert and nervy. What we need to know about his state of mind is instantly punched in via voice-over narration: “I was now determined. But would I be bold enough?” In around twenty seconds, the plot is already flying.


This introductory vignette perfectly encapsulates everything about Bresson’s style: its hard cuts on looks and glances as well as its soft dissolves that link objects across diverse times, scenes and spaces; its driven will to skip as much superfluous incident, exposition and explanation as possible (later, we won’t even see Michel’s two years of “gambling and women” in London); and its penchant for what filmmakers call the reveal (Michel is always discovering strange things in his path: his best friend in his humble apartment, Jeanne’s baby on the floor … ). Nick Cave’s brilliant description of Mark’s Gospel is apposite: "A clatter of bones, so raw, nervy and lean on information that the narrative aches with the melancholy of absence.” (5)


The most controversial element of Bresson’s style, yesterday as today, is the use of what he termed models: non-professionals who rigorously had any tics or mannerisms of expressivity knocked out of them during endless rehearsals. In their blankness, paradoxically, they become full, reflective of everything around them, and the desires we project onto them – or, at least, this was Bresson’s artistic gamble. The model-legacy in cinema is evident in everything from Alain Cavalier (Thérèse, 1986) to Ivan Sen (Beneath Clouds, 2002) via the entire œuvre of Aki Kaurismäki – and not always happily. Even in Bresson’s own work, models can too easily become zombies or sleepwalkers, reflecting little or nothing, unbearable to see and hear.


But in Pickpocket, there is life in these models: Lasalle, looking a little like Montgomery Clift, is like a spring coiled tight, eyes darting, shoulders hunched forward, ever-ready for action (Mark Rappaport has rightly knocked the assumption that it is merely passive non-acting); (6) and Marika Green (aunt of Eva Green) is the sort of tough, terse, impossibly sublime beauty that Bresson often found: the film casts only a sidelong glance at Jeanne’s story, but it is still a fascinating one, poised enigmatically between the ethereal and the carnal. Even the thinnest, most schematic figures – like Jean Pélégri as the benevolent, debating-team Man of the Law – have a homely, street-smart vibe here.


In 1959, Pickpocket hit France (it was not a commercial success) as a powerful statement of intent by Bresson: almost a film à thèse in its rigour and systematicity, it made no concessions to public or industry in its curious blend of realism and unrealism. In a master stroke, Bresson imposed his Will on the cinematograph (as he always referred to it). (7) Moving away from costume projects (Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, 1945) and overly religious subjects (The Diary of a Country Priest, 1950) of earlier years – even from the shrunken world of the hero’s cell in A Man Escaped – Bresson announced, to the discomfort of many, that henceforth every part of the modern landscape was available to his transformative, nimble fingers. The film is not part of the Nouvelle Vague, but influenced it profoundly: this urban any-space-whatever (to use Gilles Deleuze’s term) (8) comprised of bare rooms, bars, parks and métro stations set the cityscape for a hundred subsequent freewheeling improvisations by others.


Pickpocket is a film that you fall into, that sticks to you and haunts you.  It is rich enough to invite and uphold readings of wildly different orientation – as Jacques Lourcelles makes clear in this musing: “I think that theft is here the metaphor for any activity carried out beyond and against society, for all those energies which, by not serving society, deny it; but it can also just as easily be taken as a film about homosexual cruising, or the passion for gambling”. (9)


Most strikingly, Pickpocket prompts unfathomably lyrical reveries in those it most deeply touches – as if Bresson had found the fragile yet lasting expression for something quite inexpressible, ineffable. For Mangolte it captures “that endless waiting peculiar to an age in life which seemed eternal and for which time did not exist”; (10) for Chris Auty, “the constant, restless evaporation of our daily lives”; (11) for filmmaker André Téchiné (a little ironically), “the passage from jouissance to love”; (12) and for Raymond Durgnat, it is about stealing as “accepting responsibility, accepting reciprocity, enlarging oneself by accepting the subjectivity of other people.” (13) But, for me, it is one of those precious films (another is Claude Sautet’s Nelly and Mr Arnaud [1995]) that frontally tackles – whilst maintaining the aura and mystery of – a decisive moment in which a life is irrevocably changed and redirected.


There is another master of legerdemain hidden within Pickpocket – with a strange (and hitherto unremarked) Australian connection. A book circulates between Michel, his friend Jacques and the Chief Inspector – The Prince of Pickpockets, written by Richard S. Lambert in 1930 – and its subject, George Barrington, is discussed several times. Barrington was an extravagant criminal legend in London; when he was finally arrested and deported to Australia in 1851, his mere presence was enough to win the colony the dubious title of ‘The Continent of Pickpockets’. But Barrington turned his life around; moving swiftly to the side of the law, he became Superintendent of Convicts at Parramatta – and the author of a book on penal colony history.


One would say that, like Michel, Barrington had renounced his evil ways – except that, a century later, his book was revealed to be a work of theft, plagiarised wholesale! Suzanne Rickard, editor of a new edition of Barrington’s Voyage to Botany Bay, describes this strange figure in Australian history as “archetypal … a folk hero in elegant dress, the implicit model of the universal sinner, saved from himself by the generous act of transportation, and provided with a new life and new identity.” (14) That works well as a description of Michel.


As a film artist, Robert Bresson devoted his life to offering us his generous acts of transportation. Durgnat judged the “emotional intensity” of his work to be “generated by his terse, almost secretive, style”. (15) Kassagi, Michel, Barrington, Bresson: all of them artists, showmen, inspired and driven thieves in the bright daylight, involved in something spectacular, secretive – and magical.


MORE Bresson: L'Argent, Au hasard Balthazar, The Trial of Joan of Arc




1. Rui Nogueira, “Burel & Bresson”, in James Quandt (ed.), Robert Bresson (Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario, 1998), pp. 518-9. back


2. Brian Price and Drake Stutesman, “Babette Mangolte Interview”, Framework, Vol 45 No 1 (Spring 2004), p. 51. back


3. Marco Bellocchio, in Quandt (ed.), p. 528. back


4. Raymond Durgnat, “Pickpocket”, Film Comment, Vol. 35 No. 3 (May/June 1999), p. 53. back


5. Nick Cave, in Richard Holloway (ed.), Revelations: Personal Responses to the Books of the Bible (London: Canongate Books, 2004). back


6. Mark Rappaport, “Pickpocket – Revisited, Again”, in Quandt (ed.), second revised edition, pp. 339-353. back


7. See Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer (København: Green Integer, 1997) – a more accurate rendering of the original French title is Notes on the Cinematograph, a usage to which the most recent edition (New York Review Books Classics, 2016) has at last conformed. back


8. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), pp. 108-122. back


9. Jacques Lourcelles, Dictionnaire du cinéma: les films (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1995), p. 1147. back


10. Babette Mangolte, “Breaking Silence (Forty Years Later)”, in Quandt (ed.), p. 276. back


11. John Pym (ed.), Time Out Film Guide Eighth Edition (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 811. back


12. Olivier Assayas, Jean-Claude Brisseau, Benoît Jacquot, André Téchiné, Thierry Jousse and Serge Toubiana, “Autour de Pickpocket”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 416 (February 1989), p. 32. back


13. Durgnat in Quandt (ed.), p. 444. back


14. Suzanne Rickard, “Prince of Pickpockets”, Lingua Franca (Radio National, Australia, 7 July 2001). back


15. Raymond Durgnat, “Pickpocket”, Films and Filming (October 1960). back

© Adrian Martin February 2005 / August 2006 / December 2012

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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