sObert Bresson’s sharp, crisp 1959 novel is now being revived as part of a retrospective of directors at BFI Southbank in London, and everything I thought I’d seen in this fantastic film for its latest UK re-release is over. The pace of Pickpocket is part its brilliance, part its seriousness, and part its status as a cinema of ideas: a film with a bit of Dostoyevsky, Camus, or even Victor Hugo.
Bryson cast then-amateur actor Martin LaSalle as Michel, a bleak young man who spends his days writing his memoirs in a shabby bed: the harbinger of a prison cell destined for him. (Michel is clearly the ancestor of the disaffected, sleepless Paul Schrader, but with his own monastic austerity.) Michel feels unspeakable guilt for his elderly and sick mother, whom he is unable to visit despite the insistence of her young neighbor Jane. Marika Green). His friend Jacques (Pierre Lemary) tries to give him decent paid jobs, but Michel is obsessed with the mystical thrills of pickpocketing: he contemplates a biography of 18th-century Irish pickpocket and adventurer George Barrington, and he encounters a gang of pickpockets, who train him in the art of unwinding watches and wallets. Hand. They also teach him how to pass the loot from one man to another so that if it’s spotted, no one with the goods with him will be found – even if he temporarily tosss the item into a passerby’s bag when things heat up, then secretly retrieves it from him.
But Michel can’t help but befriend and delight a police officer (Jean Pellegri) with his theory of the thief as a Superman or an existential hero, the criminal who doesn’t deserve ordinary punishment. Bryson hires a real-life pickpocket, Henry Kasagi, to teach tricks and play a thief: After the movie, Kasagi becomes a stage magician because he’s now well known by returning to his old job. When I watched Pickpocket again, I saw how Michel resembles a novice priest in many ways: restless, strict, haunted by questions of sin and guilt, while the priest is allowed access to people’s souls, the thief wants close access to their money. And, of course, Michel is like an addicted gambler – Dostoevsky again – as he puts his freedom and possibly his immortal soul at risk.
After the intense existential suspense of stealing from someone, who can go back to work for a living? After the intimate orgasm, the sensual swipe of the fingers in the stranger’s pocket in the pub, subway, racetrack? Is that why Michelle does this? Or is stealing from strangers his idea of salvation after the unspeakable shame of stealing from his mother? Or is he denying something a cop can see: his pettiness, his inadequacy, all covered in this tragic comedic nonsense of being a criminal “superman”? Pickpocket’s Balinese disguise remains compelling.