Review: Pickpocket (1959)


Pick my pockets all you want, it’s not like I have any money anyways!

Written By: Robert Bresson
Directed By: Robert Bresson

I really wanted to be sitting here and typing out lots of positive hyperbole for Pickpocket. Halfway through the film I was ready to unleash said positive hyperbole. Then the end of the film came and most of the hyperbole had drifted away. I’m not quite sure if I missed something, or maybe Robert Bresson simply doesn’t care about gender equality in his film. There are great elements at play in Pickpocket, but there are also many areas where the film comes up short and feels like it’s less than the sum of its parts.

The gender equality issue I’m speaking of deals with the redemption of the Michel character through Jeanne. I had a hard time with Michel’s supposed redemption because neither narrative nor theme earned his redemption. Michel’s redemption is that he loves Jeanne, that he finally realizes he loves her and that love is what will set him on the right path. That’s great, I would have been overjoyed with the ending if the Jeanne character had ever earned such acclaim. We barely get to know Jeanne, and I struggled with the role she played in the film in accordance with her gender. She fits into Michel’s end, she needs to be present for his redemption to begin. The larger question I believe is why she should even be present? Why is she there, why does Michel love her, and why will her love be what sets Michel free? Jeanne isn’t a fully formed character, and she certainly doesn’t have any thematic drive of her own. She’s a construct, a woman who exists in the film for no other reason than to provide a male character with a chance at redemption. In and of itself this wouldn’t be a major issue, but it becomes an issue when Monsieur Bresson goes along with the redemption of Michel. He endorses it, and in doing so he embraces the empty construct that is Jeanne and says, “it’s okay for the only female in my film to get major screen time to be a construct who exists only to serve a male need.”

The above being the case, there are elements of Pickpocket that resonate with me. The isolation of Michel is lovingly presented, surviving is the only solution in a world of pain. Mostly, I was impressed with the way Monsieur Bresson gave little ticks to Michel. Being a thief, especially a pickpocket, is very tactile. To that end Michel is always clacking as he walks, at every turn there is an auditory confirmation that he is touching something. Michel is also predisposed towards leaving doors open after he enters a room. Michel doesn’t want to be as isolated as he is, and he’s hoping that someone will follow him through the open door and end his loneliness. Outside of the mishandled redemption, Pickpocket is a thematically rich and well done film.

Pickpocket is also tense when it needs to be tense. The series near the middle of the film where we see Michel learning to be a better pickpocket is as tense of a sequence as I can recall. The thievery of Pickpocket is handled masterfully. It’s tactile while at the same time possessing a lilting quality. Tension need not be heavy, and the tension created by the art of picking someone’s pocket is applied as lightly as a feather falling on a pillow.

I can see why others think of Pickpocket as a classic example of great cinema. I certainly enjoyed Monsieur Bresson’s film, and would gladly take out parts of Pickpocket and declare them to be among the best that cinema has to offer. Unfortunately the film must be taken as a whole, and as a whole the redemption theme, as well as the ending, leaves a film with a lot to be desired. Gender issues have squashed many a film, and not understanding how to make a female character more than a foil for a man has never helped a film. It’s a testament to how great the rest of Pickpocket is that it’s able to overcome its glaring flaws and still be a darn worthwhile film.





3 responses to “Review: Pickpocket (1959)

  1. I’ll agree on the Jeanne character 100%. She’s a lovely face and all, but the film needed to be at least 20 or so minutes longer so we know a bit more about her. I actually knew from the moment she appeared on screen that there was something there, but it’s sort of magically handled by the finale.

    That said, yes, those pickpocket scenes are masterful indeed. I actually loved it that Michel gets caught a few too many times and when you’re watching, you’re in a sweat like the one he’s probably in when he’s trying to grab that wallet or cash…

  2. I went through a Bresson phase last year as I’m going to watch Au Hasard Balthazar in a few days. So far, Mouchette is my favorite while this one is a close second.

  3. Gee – Those pickpocket scenes are really what make the movie. I think the rest of the film has some interesting ideas, but the execution is a bit off.

    Void – I’m still interested in seeing more Bresson, but not as keen as I was before Pickpocket.

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