By Kyle Turner
With his sunken face and an expression that reads as if the weight of the world rests rather heavily on his shoulders, Martin LaSelle looks like a more awkward Casey Affleck. Not only more awkward, but considerably more miserable. Given that LaSelle is not a professional actor, his performance as Michel, a compulsive pickpocket, is devoid of the showy theatrics that would probably be utilized by a “more experienced” actor. But this reservation is to his advantage, as such theatricality would make Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) veer off course into a saccharine melodrama; perhaps precisely the antithesis of what Bresson seeks to portray.
To some extent, Michel has a wallflower-y attitude about him. Although he’s not unattractive, he’s bland enough so that most people on the street, such as the folks he pickpockets, would barely guess it were him. His eyes lack that shiftiness that a more soulless person would have, so one can feel some palpable emotion despite the reserved nature. Yet because Michel also seems uncomfortable in his own skin, alone and without love, the compulsory aspect of the pickpocketing, the outward manifestation of his anxieties (perhaps rather existential ones) exhibit as Michel being painfully awkward.
Although Michel’s oversized jacket and trousers are probably more a denotation of his economic standing, his body nonetheless suggests anxiety. Uneasiness. Nervousness. These idiosyncrasies are evident before and after he pickpockets, but, as with any expert, not a trace of that disquiet exists when Michel is in the moment.
There’s a hint of self-loathing in the film, perhaps one of the things that either drives Michel in the first place, or the root of that self-loathing. Nonetheless, when visiting his dying mother, Michel notes that he loves her more than himself. And honestly, there’s not much to love about him. But, just as much, there’s not much to hate. There is, however, pity and sympathy for him given that LaSelle’s face gives the impression that he’s conflicted about what he’s doing, but feels the need to do so anyways. That’s how compulsions work. They are second nature, but when you actually think about them, they make you crazy.
And in that way, Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket is an interesting film about slowly going crazy, and trying to stave it off. Certainly not in the conventional sense, not even in the Black Swan sense, but in a more Camus-esque way. Michel is merely a face in the crowd and in order to feel alive, as Gary Indiana posits in his essay “Robert Bresson: Hidden in Plain Sight”, (which is included in Criterion’s outstanding new Blu-ray release) he needs to pickpocket. It’s a thing, a hobby even, that requires the utmost attention. Reflexes, dexterity, focus, concentration. And while the world around him becomes considerably more distanced and “programmed”, he seems to fight that iteration of assimilation in his way.
There is an absolutely entrancing sequence that lasts about seven minutes, one that seems to justify Bresson’s stature of cinephile veneration. In it, Michel and two accomplices (one played by real life thief Kassagi and the other played by comedian and filmmaker Pierre Etaix) swindle several people in a train station. This is like when we finally get to see Godzilla trample through Japan in 1954’s Gojira, the kind of sequence that holds your attention, leaving one entirely breathless. In it, one can see the combination of careful plotting of technique and the off the cuff, improvised stunt. These two opposites come together and create a strange harmony.
Pickpocket is lifted loosely from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but though the philosophical weight of that book is etched in LaSelle’s world-weary face, the film itself feels significantly less weighted that way. It’s less nihilistic, with its protagonist less conventionally evil. Bresson being an incredibly economical filmmaker, his character study lasts just 75 minutes. What seems to be left is a film which uses self-discipline– even asceticism– as a way to maintain sanity.