Robert Bresson’s ‘Pickpocket’ – crime and redemption on Criterion Channel

Robert Bresson draws from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” for Pickpocket (France, 1959), his examination of an arrogant young pickpocket who deems himself “above” the laws and conditions of ordinary men.

Michel (Martin Lassalle), a rather bland looking young man with a perpetually blank face, haunts the subways, city streets, and race tracks to ply his trade. He plays a game of wits with a dogged but fatherly police inspector (Pierre Leymarie) who chides his self-serving philosophy and shadows his movements, daring the brazen young man to sneak a wallet from under his nose. And he walls his heart off to the affections of a quiet young woman, Jeanne (Marika Green), who looks after his dying mother.

Bresson’s documentary-like presentation of Michel’s education in the art of picking pockets, a montage of hands, wallets, and dexterous removals, is a brilliant sequence that drives the dislocating series of close-ups to an unnerving sense that these actions are inevitable, beyond the control of human will. But if fate resides on one pole of Bresson’s world, redemption awaits on the other. Paul Schrader, who wrote eloquently of Bresson’s films in his book “Transcendental Cinema,” has quoted the famous, emotionally restrained yet spiritually moving conclusion in three of his own films: American Gigolo, Light Sleeper, and The Card Counter.



Bresson’s films aren’t for everyone. He prefers non-professionals over experience actors and his direction of his “models” (as he calls them) strips them of affectation and motivation, making them blank slates defined by the accumulation of precisely drilled actions and recitations of lines. His austere style, emotionless direction, and minimalist scripts can become frustrating if you don’t connect. But there’s a purity in his ambition to pare away everything but the essential elements of cinema.

Pickpocket is no thriller, though Bresson offers impressive, meticulously detailed scenes of daring and intimate robberies (one sequence on a subway feels like an homage to Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street). Rather, it is a powerful, profound search for meaning and spiritual enlightenment by a man who believes in nothing but himself, and many consider it Bresson’s masterpiece.

Black and white, in French with English subtitles.

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Pickpocket (The Criterion Channel) [Blu-ray + DVD]
Pickpocket (The Criterion Channel) [DVD]

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The Criterion Blu-ray and DVD editions of the film include commentary, a video introduction by writer/director Paul Schrader, the 2003 documentary “The Models of Pickpocket” featuring the actors from the film, archival interviews , and a booklet.

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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