Robert Bresson opens Pickpocket with a disclaimer, clearly meant to head off any misunderstanding about its commercial appeal. “The style of this film is not that of a thriller,” the scrolling text begins. All the same, few viewers won’t involuntarily tense up the first time its protagonist, Michel (Martin LaSalle), gets right up close to a fellow rider on the subway, staring blankly ahead as his fingers creep stealthily toward the victim’s inside coat pocket. Bresson occasionally cuts to close-ups of Michel’s hands at work, but for the most part he keeps the camera trained on LaSalle’s impassive face, typifying his use of what he termed “models” rather than professional actors. Thing is, though, Michel has extremely good reason to betray nothing at this particular moment, so the scene actually plays conventionally—which is to say, as suspenseful. We project the anxiety that we’d be feeling in Michel’s shoes onto that blank expression.
In other words, to the extent that Pickpocket is a movie about a pickpocket, it’s a highly effective one. That’s only a tiny corner of Bresson’s ambition for this film, however, which boasts a spiritual dimension that’s influenced countless other directors—most notably Paul Schrader, who provides a video introduction on Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition (ported over from their DVD). Michel feels intense guilt toward his elderly, ailing mother (Dolly Scal), delivering the money he steals to her by way of a neighbor, Jeanne (Marika Green, aunt of Eva Green), but usually refusing to visit. As his relationship with Jeanne slowly deepens, his obsession with lifting billfolds likewise grows, especially after he meets a more seasoned pro (Henri Kassagi, a non-actor who appears to have been a sleight-of-hand expert) and learns the tricks of the trade. Meanwhile, a suspicious cop (Jean Pélégri) attempts to trip Michel up via casual conversation, but instead gets drawn into philosophical debates about whether extraordinary people should be subject to the same laws as the general populace or should be free to do more or less whatever they please.
As in his previous film, A Man Escaped (1956), Bresson’s formal control here consistently astounds. Visually, he strives for—and generally achieves—absolute clarity, to the point where the film could easily be followed with the sound turned off. (As it is, there’s more voice-over narration than dialogue, as is often the case in Bresson’s films.) Doing that would be criminal, though, as few filmmakers have ever invested so much energy on Foley work, with special attention paid to the sound of characters’ footsteps. When Michel and two confederates pull a complicated three-man job, extracting the wallet of a rich man as he enters a taxi, their shoes scuffling the pavement tell the story just as much as the images do. Such precision leaves La Salle free to do as little acting as possible, trusting that he need only perform the actions required by the script and let Bresson’s artistry provide the accompanying emotion.
Whether that works for Pickpocket’s famous ending is a matter of personal taste. Schrader loves the film’s final scene so much that he’s employed a blatant variation on it in at least three of his own pictures, and the Dardennes offered up their own homage at the conclusion of L’Enfant (The Child). Michel’s final line—spoken in voice-over, apparently, though there seems to be some debate about that—opens up a new dimension to the proceedings, albeit one that had been promised in advance by the opening text, which notes (after the disclaimer) that Michel’s folly “brings together two souls that may otherwise never have met.” It never really feels as if the film has been steadily building to this communion, however, and the moment may play as ecstatic as intended only for viewers inclined to perceive it symbolically, with Jeanne representing something much greater than just herself. For those desiring a second opinion, film critic and programmer James Quandt provides an audio commentary on the Criterion edition that makes the case for Pickpocket as a towering masterpiece. Either way, it’s a film that any self-respecting cinephile must see.