• Pickpocket:
    Robert Bresson: Hidden in Plain Sight

    By Gary Indiana

    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.

21 comments

  • By Diego
    December 13, 2009
    10:42 PM

    Mr. Indiana is absolutely clueless... Never read such a poor take on Bresson's films...
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    • By Johan Sigg
      May 13, 2013
      10:24 AM

      I agree. So much of this is just so very wrong. People overanalyze Bresson's comment about his being a "Christian atheist".
  • By lenny mac
    December 18, 2009
    09:32 AM

    i think Gary is saying more about himself than Bresson or his "Pickpocket". they -- who they? -- say that sociopaths cannot love, do not suffer guilt. i don't love, or love very little, and yet i'm not a sociopath, suffer tons of guilt, cringing over the past drunk or sober, always clearly, somehow, insane. even now. "man is the only animal so miserable that he had to invent laughter". it seems my saving grace, for when i can't stand myself any longer, i larf.
    Reply
  • By Eric Paul
    January 21, 2010
    12:31 PM

    Dear Mr Indiana BRAVO As someone who a) is a religious believer (unchurched, non-denominational) b) Has had a mystical experience c) Was nurtured on Andre Bazin in the French (but dont agree with him about Bresson) and saw Bresson's first films in a cinephile youth grounded in 'art' films not mainstream ones and therefore wouldnt like some people experience Bresson as something completely different d) worshipped Carl Dreyer on the basis of a single viewing of the Passion of Joan of Arc and was and remains enthralled by Rosselini's Bergman films d) Cannot comprehend how Rossellini's Bergman films were ever regarded as anything but wonderful and how they could non--plus critics e) deplores that both Rossellini and Dreyer (and not just them) remain unknown to the majority of educated religious, church going or even just spiritually evolved people while the same people pronounce authoritatively on Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick and Quentin Tarentino and debate the merits of Gibson's Passion d) deplores the secular-liberal outlook when pushed to its limits and assumes that film are a purely secular medium; may i congratulate you on the second level-headed clear sighted piece of criticism of Bresson's pseudo-profundity and trampling on our humanity that I have read - the first being a couple of pieces by Dan Harper I found while browsing this while currently writing an in depth analysis of Bresson as a spiritual and religious film-maker (no concrete publication yet intended) Unlike Dan harper who remains caustically non committal youve hit the nail right on the head and taken a lot fewer words than I ever could hope to. Incidentally you';re wrong that Dreyer is humourless: there's plenty of humour in his pre-Joan fo Arc movies which resurfaces in playful moments in Ordet. I's just that when your main concern is the putting to death of people of faith by their own church, there aint much to be funny about. Dreyer is tragic where Bresson is merely depressingly life-denying. Glad you saw the resemblance between Pickpocket and Camus' Outsider. Will stop here. Hope to hear from you - will look you up on web. Here for finish is the concluding paragraph of one of the sections of my essay on Pickpocket in particular ...All of which Mr Shra­der finds profound and I (and I imagine not just I) find turgid, pre­ten­tious and above all insuf­fi­ci­en­tly dramatised. As the scep­tics and antis put it, you need the Sin other­wi­se where would the Re­dem­ption be? It's the kind of thing that gets re­li­gion such a bad name. The violence and the gore of the American direc­tors are the play­ing out of this as a pseudo-pas­sion, as in Taxi Driver, which in Sco­r­sese's Last Temp­ta­tion becomes the actual pas­sion, a fully-blown S & M show gro­wing out of the ma­so­chism of the kind of guilt-ridden Catholicism which leaves you only the ho­pe of Gra­ce to free you, and until it does, what can you do but stew in your own hell and dwell on it obses­si­vely, and what can artists do but show it se­duc­tively in a cinematic ex­plo­ra­tion of their navel-wat­ching? On Bresson in general With regard to the medium being the mes­sage, I would ar­gue, with all due apo­lo­gies (or rather no a­po­logies) for the innuendoes, that Bres­son's pas­sive-feminine maso­chism and Scorsese and Gib­son's brutal ma­chi­smo are alter­nate si­des of the sa­me coin, the coin of a de­based hu­manity that can only have a de­ba­sed faith because it has no faith in either humanity or indeed in faith itself . Hope to hear from you Dans l'attente de vous lire, croyez cher monsieur à l'expression de mon estime profonde ainsi que celle de mes sentiments respectueux Eric Paul
    Reply
  • By DeWayne Guyer
    January 29, 2010
    04:41 AM

    Another country heard from.
    Reply
  • By courtney
    October 11, 2010
    11:33 PM

    while i agree with a lot of these points made, i would have to argue the implication that michel is some sort of a sociopath. i believe he's just bored. and lazy. he refuses to see his mother because i'm sure she serves as some sort of mirror for how immoral, redundant, and petty his life has become. most heist films portray the "art" of stealing as sexy, passionate, and glamorous. pickpocket, on the other hand, does the exact opposite. while michel steals to earn a living, his life is nowhere near more fulfilling or rich than the average person who works for an honest living.
    Reply
  • By cathy frankel
    June 20, 2011
    12:31 PM

    I love this review! The writer has read Dostoyevsky. He has also taken LSD and knows all about orgasms. I think he is right that Michel will find "dozens of lovers in jail." Prison is a very romantic place! I only wish Bresson had made a sequel. Something like, The 120 Days of Sodomizing Michel." I also love Bresson! In a 1970 interview he says that instinct is more important than intellect. In that interview he demonstrates the truth of this, since nothing he says makes any sense.
    Reply
  • By LANE MORRISON
    July 14, 2011
    04:50 PM

    Of course we know you Mr. Indiana. No one reveals him or herself like a writer. To suggest otherwise denotes a lack of self awareness one should never find in a critic. And to respond to Mr. Mac as you do says volumes. Tripe? Did you really use that word? Indeed.
    Reply
  • By Jonathan
    August 06, 2011
    03:52 AM

    What an awful essay. Criterion should be ashamed for including it on this dvd. I have always had a very high opinion of Criterion, but it has lowered a little bit today. I will not be buying this dvd, even though Pickpocket is one of my favorite films.
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    • By Filiusd99993
      September 01, 2013
      02:00 AM

      The review is indeed awful. However, the DVD? It's amazing.
  • By Ivona Poyntz
    June 18, 2012
    04:36 PM

    Brilliant, brilliant review. Even more brilliant than the film, which is lacklustre and uninspired, with wooden acting and weak cinematography. I just can't warm up to Bresson like I have to say, Rohmer, Godard
    Reply
  • By suranga fernando
    November 17, 2012
    11:04 AM

    did criterion pay this guy to write this trash? this is the stupidest review i have ever read. it has less on movie, than on gary indiana's speculations about, his own drug fueled gay prison fantasies (and inevitable misogynistic digs at women), to what bresson knew about then obscure (and now rightly forgotten) left loony theories about emotions, etc.. these moronic fantasies about this movie and rest of bresson's movies are presented in defiance of what the movies actually contain. if criterion is asking its high price because of such crappy extras, we will do better to buy same movies without extras at a lower price
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    • By Daniel W.
      May 13, 2014
      04:45 PM

      Why is it usually a default for these so called "intellectuals" like Mr. Indiana here to analyze something like pickpocketing as a psychosexual act? In fact, he is just over-analyzing this film all together. I agree that he is throwing in ideas that were not present in the film. He states that the professional thief named Kassagi is a kind of lover for Michel? Give me a break! The film is good, but this is one of the worst criterion essays ever written.
  • By Paul Zahl
    December 15, 2013
    10:00 PM

    I don't think this essay should have been accepted by the Criterion Collection. It made me decide not to buy the movie in this format.
    Reply
  • By Zsigmond James
    December 16, 2013
    05:39 AM

    The essay belongs in a throwaway tabloid...
    Reply
  • By Gord
    July 16, 2014
    07:59 PM

    What's this? Looks interesting. Love Bresson. Neat name - reminds me of Indiana Jones. What?! He bad-mouths Snow White in the third sentence?! Let's see what else is on...
    Reply
  • By Tom Frobisher
    July 18, 2014
    02:22 PM

    After reading Mr. Indiana and then the comments, I went back to the article to figure out just exactly what it is about this perfectly lucid, cogent, suggestive, and engaging essay that caused all the cuckoos to pop out of their little net lairs. I know that many viewers like a film experience spoon-fed to them, with plenty of reassurances that everything they believe is A-OK. They resent it when a filmmaker is not inclined toward this method and takes a more exploratory approach. Mr. Indiana doesn't think everything is A-OK and from this reasonable perspective attempts to investigate Bresson's take on the moral vicissitudes of contemporary life. Perhaps he takes it on the chin for failing to explain away some viewers' discomfort with "Pickpocket". Instead he suggests that it's these points of disturbance that viewers would most fruitfully focus on. Here in my little net lair, I especially relished the commenter who opined "Of course we know you Mr. Indiana. No one reveals him or herself like a writer." This set of comments certainly provide dramatic examples of that!
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    • By Jonathan
      July 18, 2014
      07:43 PM

      No, most film viewers like a review that doesn't completely misinterpret every single part of this movie is unbelievable ways. Keep telling yourself that your smugness makes you superior, though.
  • By Tom Frobisher
    July 18, 2014
    09:45 PM

    Jonathan -- Now you're talkin'! You've finally pinpointed what it is you don't like about the essay. But you don't let us in on what you think Mr. Indiana misinterprets or why you think he's mistaken, either in this or your earlier comment. But then ladling out simple abuse is so much easier, isn't it?
    Reply
  • By Carol T
    July 20, 2014
    09:58 AM

    Hey Jonathan - Actually, simple-minded, unsubstantiated assertions, like yours, in lieu of an argument are the essence of smugness.
    Reply
  • By itchyrodent32
    July 20, 2014
    04:40 PM

    Ah, online comments. Isn't it great how civil everyone is?
    Reply

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