Saturday, August 8, 2009

Film Review: Pickpocket [A]

Film / Review

Pickpocket [InRO]
Director: Robert Bresson
Year: 1959
Part of: Robert Bresson & the Anti-Film

In Marc Webb's recent lovers' romp, "500 Days of Summer," Joseph Gordon-Levitt's hopeless romantic refers to himself as "adequately handsome." To me, there's no better way to describe the physical appearance of Martin LaSalle, who plays the central character in Robert Bresson's 1959 classic, "Pickpocket." He's not too skinny or too fat. His features are proportionate, though his face is perhaps a bit more narrow than ideal. In fact, everything about Michel seems adequate; his posture, his demeanor, his intelligence. He is not in any way extraordinary, and if he were, Bresson would likely have no interest in him, as this is a filmmaker usually interested in characters with some kind of strain on their life, or with some sort of vice. "Pickpocket" covers both bases, and it's the most Rohmer-esque of the Bresson films I've seen; a pointed morality tale about the persuasive power of commerce, the greed and especially the pride that comes with the pursuit of wealth. In Michel's case, earning money the traditional way has proven ineffective, and so he turns to a life of crime, to the life of a street pickpocket. It's this simple catalyst that allows for Bresson's most carefully choreographed film, imitated often (just this year, and rather convincingly, in Johnny To's "Sparrow"), but never executed with the same grace and precision as shown here: close-ups of hands acrobatically twist and strain around the hem of a jacket like Olympic athletes vaulting over a beam. Much of "Pickpocket's" 74-minute runtime is taken up by these suspenseful sequences, as our daring protagonist is always a thimble's depth away from alerting his targets and spending his life in jail. Of course, there's a story here, and it's a simple yet powerful one, built on three key elements: Michel develops his craft over time, learns from his peers, digs himself a deeper grave (crime); struggles to avoid the ever-watchful eye of a particularly suspicious police chief (punishment); and earns the attention of a pretty but "naive" girl (redemption). The plot is minimalist but strong and complements what I've always felt to be the most compelling element of Bresson's craft: the economy of the filmmaking. In the 95 minutes comprising Bresson's best film, "Au Hasard Balthazar," the director gets as close to the essence of life as any film ever has, but with "Pickpocket,” Bresson zeros in on the life of one individual, and crafts a devastating parable that is arguably the director's most focused and accessible film, one as worthy of classic status as any he's made.

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