Alfred Hitchcock’s remarkably Bressonian The Wrong Man opens with an unusual directorial prologue warning the viewer not to expect a typical Hitchcockian “suspense picture.” Three years later, Bresson prefaced his own Pickpocket with a similar caveat, alerting the viewer in an opening crawl that “This film is not a thriller.” Yet where Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man was clearly a departure for the director, Bresson’s Pickpocket is anything but a Hitchcockian departure for Bresson.
The opening shot, with Michel (Martin La Salle, whose much-noted resemblance to The Wrong Man’s Henry Fonda may have been a factor in his casting) simultaneously writing and narrating his story (or confession), overtly recalls the director’s first distinctively Bressonian masterpiece, Diary of a Country Priest.
Structurally, Pickpocket’s story of a guilty man spending nearly the whole film evading the consequences of his actions is an almost perfect mirror image of the innocent prisoner’s escape efforts in A Man Escaped (there is even an early abortive brush with the law mirroring the early abortive escape attempt in the previous film). The enigmatic climax, while more challenging than Bresson’s previous films, anticipates the later, increasingly difficult Bresson of Au Hasard Balthazar and Mouchette.
In some respects Pickpocket is a mirror image of Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man. In The Wrong Man, Henry Fonda’s a hard-working musician is an everyman, an anybody. By contrast, Pickpocket’s Michel, a bland, lazy intellectual, is an atypical thief, for he tells us in the first lines that those who do such things don’t tell about them, yet he has done them and is telling us.
Yet he’s not as unusual as he affects to be, judging from the sophistries he exchanges with a police inspector (Jean Pelegri) about “supermen” of such genius and value to society that they are above ordinary rules, and can commit crimes rather than “stagnate.” Uneasily aware of the shabbiness of his position, he adds half-heartedly, “Don’t worry, it would only be at first. Then they’d stop.” The inspector, though, knows better: Michel can’t stop, until something stops him.
There’s something else Michel can’t do: make contact with other people. Unlike Fonda’s Wrong Man character, a decent family man whose life and relationships are thrown into upheaval when he is wrongly suspected of a crime, Michel is an isolated loner who holds himself at arm’s length from other people, avoiding contact with others until his life of crime results in someone else making contact with him.
At least twice in the film Michel fails to recognize people he has met before, a symptom, perhaps, of his inability to engage other people. “You’re not in the real world,” Jeanne (Marika Green), a young neighbor of Michel’s mother, tells him. “You share no interests with others.” Even the experienced thief (sleight-of-hand artist Kassagi) who becomes a mentor to Michel never gets to know him, nor vice versa.
Does Michel want to be caught? Does he taunt the inspector because he feels untouchable, or is there another reason? As always, Bresson examines actions but offers little attention to motives, an approach that here seems to suggest that Michel’s choices may be a mystery even to himself, his threadbare theorizing only rationalization.
What can be said is that lurking behind Michel’s theories of supermen above the rules is resistance to the idea of higher rules, a higher judgment. “Judged how? According to laws? It’s absurd,” he scoffs. To this Jeanne asks, like Marie in Balthazar, “Do you believe in nothing?” Michel answers, “I believed in God, Jeanne, for three minutes.” Significantly, the occasion of Michel’s three-minute encounter with God is a funeral.
Even more than A Man Escaped, Pickpocket offers an ideal case for Bresson’s insistence on naked actions devoid of acting, since Michel’s occupation requires him to suppress any sign of emotion. Yet in a profound sense this is irrelevant; Bresson would bring the same stylistic rigor to any subject (cf. the lovers’ quarrels of Lancelot of the Lake), and I don’t suppose he particularly sought out topics that lent themselves to impassive acting. His purpose was not verisimilitude, but a particular effect.
Redemption, as usual in Bresson, is enigmatic but evocative. What changes for Michel at that critical moment when another hand decisively meets his? Certainly, his pretended superman status has been shaken; yet he hardly seems contrite. Why does he now respond differently to Jeanne? Perhaps his solipsistic isolation has been breached by an unexpected encounter with the force of another will and a personality outside himself? What does it mean? Bresson asks but never tells.
Long out of print on VHS, Pickpocket is at last available on DVD from the Criterion Collection, which already includes Diary of a Country Priest, Au Hasard Balthazar and others. The disc comes with numerous extras including an audio commentary, an interview with Bresson, a 2003 documentary, and footage of Kassagi on French television.
However, the Criterion edition has also sparked controversy by including a liner-notes essay by novelist Gary Indiana, who brings an anti-religious, at times ludicrously coarse interpretive framework to Bresson. NY Press film critic Armond White launched a blistering critique of Indiana’s approach, and the erudite Bressonians at Masters of Cinema have weighed in in favor of White and against Indiana (cf. this fluid page; no permalink available).
Criterion’s contribution to the accessibility of Bresson’s work in the US is greatly appreciated. It’s a shame their Pickpocket release provided a platform for Indiana’s agenda-driven Freudian reductionism.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.