Monday, November 8, 2021

Robert Bresson | Pickpocket

the touch never to be felt

by Douglas Messerli

Robert Bresson (screenwriter and director)  Pickpocket / 1959, USA 1963

Pickpocket is one of Bresson's greatest films, although US viewers have often described it as being stiffly-acted with scenes that appear to be "phony." In his introduction to the Criterion release of the film, script writer Paul Schrader explains, in part, why this film was so meaningful to him by discussing how Bresson worked against the genre of the crime story, and, in fact, pushed against traditional narrative techniques.

     Through his use of "non-actors"—individuals who never before appeared in films who speak lines not as portrayals of "reality" but somewhat flatly and uninflected—through his repetition of the action—often reporting what was about to happen and then showing it again—and through his odd employment of music—stealing it from emotional scenes and bringing it in at seemingly inopportune moments—Bresson works against both narrative and genre; "this is not like a crime movie," Schrader summarizes. The slow movement of the actors, Bresson's "single" or even full-length shots, and the deprivation of emotional expression on the actors' often blank faces, moreover, all work together to create in the viewers a sense of unease that builds up to the final moments when the failure of his life is revealed to the "hero," Michel (Martin LaSalle). In short, if to some viewers the film seems stiff and artificial, it is purposely and effectively so.

     What Schrader does not describe however, is the even more disquieting relationship this film has with parts of the body, particularly the hands, which lends to the work an uneasy sensation of voyeurism. Indeed, I will go so far as to describe this film as a series of mimed sex acts, most of them homoerotic.

     As a gay director focusing on the spiritual aspects of life, Bresson clearly finds it painfully difficult for his characters to outwardly express their desires for sexual fulfillment. Rather, time and again, sex is symbolized by various parts of the body, particularly the hands, feet, or the simple expressions upon a face. Yet these must not be overlooked as sexual, often homosexual actions, despite the fact that they not only do not visually represent sexual activity but seem to stand against actual human contact. It is almost as if in their absence, the fingers, mouths, and legs are drawn even closer into bodily contact, something that would influence numerous later gay directors such as Pier Paulo Pasolini and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, where an image of a hand reaching for a shirt or a casual placement of a hand upon a friend’s shoulder means far more than what it appears to represent.  Obviously, we see only fragments of body parts, and the scenes are always played out with clothed actors. 

    We understand, moreover, the "real" action to be a portrayal of robbery.

    The situation is simple. A friend of Michel's, Jacques (Pierre Leymarie), tries to help the out of work man find a job. "You're good with your hands," he tells Michel. But Michel demures, preferring, so it seems, the emptiness of his shiftless life. We later discover that he has gone as far as to steal money from his own mother.

     One day, after witnessing a pickpocket at work on a train, Michel cannot resist attempting a similar act. When he accomplishes it—out of pure luck, he confesses—he feels as if "I was walking on air." However, soon after, he is arrested, freed only because the police do not have enough evidence. Like an addict, however, he returns to carry out several other such robberies, that is until he meets up with another man who appears to be following him, and who quickly becomes an accomplice, soon bringing in a third party as well.

     It is at that moment, as the accomplice follows him, and Michel turns back to challenge the stranger that we begin to perceive in Bresson's work that any plot is basically laid to rest, as the director shifts instead to almost abstract patterns that are similar to sexual "cruising." Bresson begins, in long repetitious montages, to show us how to steal a billfold, a watch, a purse. In most cases the pickpocket must face the person (most often a male) directly head on, moving as closely to him as possible. The slip of the hand into the pocket (in Bresson's telling it is usually the upper breast pocket or the front coat pocket, seldom the back) must be supple and quick, almost as if one were stealthfully stroking the individual without him knowing it.

     Michel's long, thin fingers sensually dart into pockets again and again, or those same fingers gently curl around the wrist as they remove a victim's watch. The passing of these trophies on to the others is as sudden and lascivious, as if they were sharing some sexual charge carried along with the objects they've stripped from the victims.

     Indeed, it is the addiction to these encounters, the fixation on the placement of hands upon the bodies of others that makes this the perfect metaphor for the sexual act, and helps to keep the audience queasily attentive. Without quite knowing it, we feel that we are sharing something that should remain private.

      In his public life, on the other hand, in his encounters with the detective, with Jacques, and the woman, Jeanne (Marika Green) who cares for his mother, Michel is a cold fish, arguing vaguely for a kind of anarchy in which "supermen" are permitted to behave as they like. Although it's clear he is attracted to Jeanne, he seems uncaring for her destitute situation and nonplussed by Jacques' growing love of her. Michel gains little, moreover, from his thievery. He readily gives up most of the money to his mother and would support Jeanne if he could, while living in a hovel, a room that has no reason to exist except for providing him a place to sleep—sometimes for long periods when he becomes exhausted from his acts, just as one might from sex.

     On the contrary, in public—at the races, on trains and subways, and in the lobbies of banks where he selects his "clients"—Michel comes alive in his search for something to put into his hands. Unlike the country priest in Bresson's earlier movie, whose hands remain empty, in his attempts express the miracle of life, Michel is seen desperately trying to fill up his hands, reaching out again and again for bodies that he cannot dare touch, only to discover fists full of watches, billfolds, and an occasional purse. As Jeanne correctly tells him "You're not in the real world."

     After leaving Paris for a time, practicing his thievery elsewhere, Michel returns to find Jeanne alone with a child. For the first time, Michel begins to see her frailty and beauty, and determines to become honest. Jeanne, always the realist, however, knows the truth: "You have to leave me and never come back," she proclaims.

     This time his addiction leads him back to Longchamps, the racetrack where he was first arrested. As he attempts to steal a bundle of money from a man who works with the police, we see a different encirclement of the wrist, a handcuff placed upon it. In prison—a place where, in fact, Michel has metaphorically been all along—he finally comes to see the emptiness of the things he has taken in favor of true physical contact. Jeanne appears at his cell, and the film ends with her kissing his hands through the prison bars, representing his possible redemption through love.

Los Angeles, February 4, 2000


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