Pickpocket – 1959
Director – Robert Bresson
Starring – Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, and Jean Pelegri
Ultimately, the end goal of any movie, or even any story for that matter, is to properly set up the climax for maximum impact with the audience. For Pickpocket, Robert Bresson, bent the common movie conventions and purposefully crafted a flawed movie with sole intention of getting the most out of the climax of the story.
The story is a fairly simple one. Driven by need as well as the obligation to provide for his sick mother, a young man becomes fascinated with the art of stealing. Clumsy at first, he learns the art of sleight of hand pickpocketing until it becomes a compulsion for him. Soon, he discovers that the police are on his tail, and he’s left with the option of going straight or being caught.
As far as it’s construction, the nuts and bolts that make it up, Pickpocket is flawed. It’s flawed, but on purpose. The missteps in the earlier portions of the movie all serve the scene at the very end. The strange pacing, the missed musical cues, the fact that we never actually see anything concrete happen in the film, the flat un-affected acting. All of these things, are suddenly jarred into working, and emotional heft of the plot comes into focus. In all actuality, the plot of Pickpocket, is almost inconsequential. The important part is the change that takes place in our main character. The story is a means of getting him to that point where the change can occur, and the disjointed filmmaking is a means of conditioning the audience so that when the change finally does take place (and the music hits, and the acting seems natural, etc…) we feel it that much more.
Robert Bresson, a student of the school of French New Wave cinema, is interested in creating a soul for his character. He wants the flat, mundane character that we are presented with to come to life in front of us. His method of maintaining aspects of the filmmaking process so that he can change them later when the story calls for it, is not a new one. Directors as far-ranging as Stanley Kubrick, and David Lynch have used these techniques to craft some of the most memorable performances in cinema. What would Jack Nicholson’s horrific rampage in The Shining have been if Kubrick hadn’t maintained the still camera, and methodic line delivery? Or how about the unsettling death tableau from Blue Velvet? How shocking and bizarre would that have been if the set up of the main characters hadn’t been so white washed and comfortable small town?
The problem with Pickpocket is not in what it achieves, but in what it doesn’t. Due to the fact that the whole film is a set up for the last scene, we are left with that one redeeming quality. If in that first hour, the audience is bored and leaves, then it wasn’t worth all that effort. The story was a bit thin, and the characters were only just deep enough to carry the plot, so there were no stakes to them failing, or to our pickpocket being caught. Pickpocket serves as an interesting exercise in the ability of film to tell stories and convey emotion, however, it’s good that other filmmakers were able to take what was successful here and improve upon it.