Friday, December 29, 2006

Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959)

Is Pickpocket Bresson's most famous film? It's Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, of course, only Bresson gives himself the additional challenge of dealing with petty thievery instead of (as was in Dostoevsky) a double murder (it's as if Bresson disdained the larger-than-life drama inherent in killing, and instead decided to focus on the minutae of common larceny). Paul Schrader talks about how its portrait of a man outside of society influenced Taxi Driver, filmmakers (including Scorsese) talk about the erotic and visual thrill the pickpocketing sequences give them, how watches and wallets and pens are passed around like so many prized fetishes, how fingers touch, lightly slide over, and slip into pockets, coats, handbags.

The first theft for me is the most telling: Michel at the horserace, behind the woman, hand poised above the handbag. Bresson cuts to a head-on shot of the two figures as they watch the race (depicted, in typical Bressonian fashion, entirely on the soundtrack). Michel's eyes, always hooded, droop an extra millimeter here: you can see how absorbed he is at what he's doing.

This isn't sex, or at least it isn't interactive sex: it's onanism, self-absorbed violation of a man or woman without the man or woman's awareness that he's being so intimately molested. It's a game people play, and yes, it is actually possible to ejaculate just from the friction created by textile alone. Whether the person you're doing it to is aware or not you're not quite sure, and that's the one thing that felt so freakishly right about it all, that paradoxically frank stare Michel gets from his victims sometimes: it's as if they're sizing him up, and in that millisecond of contact, seeing his soulful eyes and handsomely ascetic face, giving him consent to proceed. Is Pickpocket also Bresson's most most openly erotic film? Could be.

Looking at the DVD's extras, I found a fascinating documentary by a filmmaker who, confusing a vaguely familiar man she's met for an old childhood friend, discovers she's looking at Pierre Laymarie, who played Jacques in the film. She goes on to hunt down the rest of the cast, discovering Marika Green, who played Jeanne as the 16 year old virgin that she really was (and at 60 years old looking remarkably fit and lovely). Martin LaSalle, who played Michel, was unrecognizable (he was bald and bearded) except for the intense heavy-lidded eyes. Unlike most of Bresson's 'models' (as he called them sometimes) and like Anne Wiazemsky and Dominique Sanda, Green and LaSalle went on to have long careers (LaSalle, I'm surprised to learn, was in among many films Missing, Under Fire, Alamo Bay, and even an episode of Crime Story--like his character, he slips in and out of films I've seen without my noticing; he's even finished a film this year).

Green proudly shows a small painting LaSalle's given her in 1996, with the words written "with great love" or something like that. One wonders--that final image, of the two pressed together through prison bars, how intense was it that the memory of it should inspire so vivid an expression of affection after so many years? Michel, after years of alienation, finally discovers simple human contact--ironically when he's physically isolated, in prison. It's about as moving an image of love as any I can think of; one remembers the singularly intense sexual thrill Michel had (and Bresson so memorably evoked to us) of picking pockets, however, and wonders how long the relationship will last.