I have an unusually easy way of remembering when I first became fascinated by Robert Bresson’s films. Pickpocket (1959) was the first one I saw, at the old Orson Welles theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in my late teens; it was also the first movie I saw on LSD. (Even on acid, I was never one to enjoy Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.)
Since I hadn’t absorbed the truisms about Bresson that even then encased his work in a gelatin of spiritually heroic clichés, I was, after Pickpocket, skeptical about the thematic platitudes critics and film writers routinely and confidently attached to him. Some of them were plausible, some undoubtedly true, but many just sounded convincing; once art becomes a religion, you can say any high-minded nonsense about it with utter impunity.
As per standard critical note, Pickpocket is obviously “inspired” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. A man commits forbidden acts, gets caught, and goes to prison, where his suffering is ameliorated by the steadfast love of a good woman.
But Pickpocket’s central character, Michel (played by the Uruguayan nonactor Martin LaSalle), with his watery, feebly asserted version of Raskolnikov’s Nietzscheanism, is merely a petty thief, conspicuously lacking the will to monstrosity of Dostoyevsky’s ax murderer. His crimes never rise above the level of common, small-time transgression. They are enlarged to epic scale only by his neurasthenic imagination. His decision to tempt exposure and shame on a daily basis is a difficult one, but not because he wonders, terrified like Raskolnikov, whether he’s truly capable of it. It isn’t monstrous to steal. Often it is necessary, and its drastic punishment is more wicked than the crime. Les misérables, after all, is about a man implacably hounded by the law for stealing a loaf of bread.
True, Michel could get a job. But stealing has a specific psychosexual meaning for him, beyond fulfilling the simple need to eat. Michel is like a man who knows he can cop an orgasm if he manages to be in the right place at the right time and rubs up against the right partner. His fears are more logistical than spiritual, and also function as aphrodisiacs.
It’s unlikely that Michel steals because he considers himself a “superman,” in a class of hypothetical extraordinary beings whose unusual gifts place them above the law—though he posits such a theory, abstractly, in his sour, unengaging encounters with the police detective played by Jean Pélégri. Michel steals because it is the only act that makes him feel alive in a world becoming dead—not only dead to pleasure and unprogrammed emotions but, as later Bresson would make ever more explicit, organically dead. Theft reconnects Michel to the flow of life around him, from which he otherwise feels desperately isolated, and which he perceives as pathetically limited in its possibilities.
When he refuses to see his dying mother and answers his friend Jacques’s sarcastic reproach “And you say you love your mother” with “More than myself,” Michel says the literal truth. This is not because he can’t access a profound love he really feels for her but because he feels nothing at all, and loves her as much—in other words, as little—as anything or anyone else. A prisoner of coercive social forms, like all of us, Michel “feels” he should feel what he can’t feel, but since he doesn’t, he can only offer the empty verbal assurance that he does.
Michel is more like Albert Camus’s Meursault than Raskolnikov, but this likeness is nearly as superficial. Meursault’s only important act in The Stranger is the unmotivated killing of an Arab on an Algerian beach. Michel’s thefts, on the other hand, produce an income, require continual refinement, and relieve him of the wage- earning regimentation of the Parisian subbourgeoisie. He sets a trap for himself, but the forces of order that close it on him have no intrinsic worthiness; they simply defend a mediocre status quo that governs the circulation of capital.
The erotic center of Pickpocket is not Michel’s growing love for Jeanne, the young woman neighbor looking after his mother. Indeed, the shrewdly chosen visage of Marika Green emits expressions of overdrawn humility and neurotic dutifulness. If she wishes to “save” Michel, whose disjointedly angular beauty so closely resembles that of Egon Schiele, this may be the effusion of saintly purity, but if you ignore the austerity of Bresson’s cinematography, you can also assume that she wants to save Michel for herself, to secure an attractive breadwinner for her fatherless children, “redeeming” him for a future life of dreary convention.
Far more romantic than his dealings with Jeanne are Michel’s encounters with the thief played by the real-life pickpocket Kassagi. Distinctly reptilian, as comfortable in criminality as a rubber duck in a bubble bath, Kassagi is like the lover who, after you’ve had a few quotidian partners, reveals the astonishing range of pleasures available from someone who actually knows what he’s doing.
The “redemptive ending” of Pickpocket, cannibalized whole in any number of movies, is also, from a certain angle, specious. Jeanne may well repine while Michel’s in prison, sustained by the exalting power of love; Michel, on the other hand, given his good looks and fragile physique, will probably find dozens of lovers in jail to refine his talents as a criminal, and emerge a hardened, masterfully seductive, charmingly predatory thug.
Yes, it’s comforting to think otherwise. We would like to believe, contrary to everything we know, that a hopelessly corrupt world offers endless opportunities for rehabilitation. But as the protagonist of The Devil, Probably (1977) would put it, rehabilitation to what? Belief is just as toxic as cynicism. Redemption has become a business, a commodity, a lucrative premise for launching an Oliver North or a G. Gordon Liddy as a talk show host. Bresson had to have known this well in advance of the fait accompli, given that Pickpocket was made long after Guy Debord and the Situationists had described precisely how our emotions were being turned into products.
The Catholic right loves to claim Bresson as a sort of “Christian atheist,” yet his work is remarkably fixated on the death of feeling and the uselessness of Christian faith. To find in it a lamentation for the absence of God is to cheapen the existential toughness of its core. While Bresson adapted material from a protofascist Christian like Georges Bernanos, his version of Diary of a Country Priest (1951) presents its clergyman as an insipid admirer of his own earnest masochism. Bresson’s real subject is not the priest but the poisonous malice of the provincial imbeciles who constitute his “flock.”
Furthermore, before anyone awards Bresson a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his so-called belief in spiritual redemption through suffering, and in the ennobling, Tolstoyan honesty of peasant ordinariness, we should consider his first great work, Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), and his final masterpiece, L’argent (1983). In the former, Bresson shows us María Casares wreaking an intricate and ingenious revenge, à la Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, on a once potential lover she never wanted in the first place and desires only after she ruins him; frequently described as an anomaly in Bresson’s oeuvre, this film is anything but. Leo Tolstoy’s story “The Forged Coupon” illustrates through the metaphor of counterfeit currency how the inauthentic spreads destruction through a society; in Bresson’s adaptation, L’argent, he bends this tale into a straightforward, horrifically brutal depiction of money itself as humanity’s ultimate self- annihilating invention.
Pickpocket, like all of Bresson’s films, records the expiration of humane feeling in the modern world, the impossibility of decency in a universe of greed. This is amply illustrated in Au hasard Balthazar (1966), a film about the sufferings of a donkey so painful to watch that if you can see it through without weeping, you deserve to be hit by a Mack truck when you leave the theater. For Bresson, the casual destruction of life, any life, is the damning imperative of the human species. As William Burroughs put it, “Man is a bad animal.” This message is spelled out in boldface in The Devil, Probably, with its copious footage of man-made ecological disaster.
Critics frequently link Bresson with Carl Dreyer, which is a bit like pairing August Strindberg with Henrik Ibsen. Like Ibsen, Dreyer has a seamless lack of humor and a solemnity that gives his films the gravity of a cancer operation.
In Bresson, however, the absurdity that delicately fringes Strindberg’s dark dramas echoes in whole passages of deliberately idiotic dialogue, in actions that speak volumes about nothing but feel uncomfortably textured like real life. Dreyer boils life down to its pivotal moments; Bresson shows that most of our lives are consumed by meaningless routines. This can be startlingly funny, just when you thought a Bresson movie couldn’t become more grim.
In Pickpocket, the society whose laws Michel breaks is far more criminal than he is—not technically, not legally, but spiritually. This is Bresson’s archly comic irony, heavily veiled in nocturnal chiaroscuro. His film’s tragedy, which is finally more important, is that Michel would like to feel guilty for his crimes, and would even like to love his mother, or Jeanne. But like the humans of the future that Bresson so clearly envisioned, who are already living among us, Michel can’t feel a thing, and couldn’t love anyone if his life depended on it. The sad truth is, it doesn’t.
Gary Indiana is the author of many novels and works of nonfiction, including, most recently, the collection Last Seen Entering the Biltmore: Plays, Short Fiction, Poems 1975–2010. His film Stanley Park appeared in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2005 DVD edition of Pickpocket.