Wednesday, 8 February 2012

PICKPOCKET - Review by Greg Klymkiw - Robert Bresson delivers another masterpiece with this cold, calculatingly meticulous crime picture. "Pickpocket" is part of the continuing TIFF Cinematheque retrospective of the complete works of Robert Bresson as organized & curated by legendary film programmer/curator James Quandt.

Pickpocket (1959) dir. Robert Bresson
Starring: Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, Pierre Laymarie, Dolly Scal, Jean Pélégri, Kassagi, Pierre Étaix


By Greg Klymkiw

Okay, I know this is a horrible generalization, but I'll take the plunge anyway. French movies usually drive me up a wall. I hate it when they're whimsical (Phillippe de Broca's King of Hearts or, God help us, anything by Jean Pierre Jeunet), or when they try to be funny (the annoyingly whimsical Jacques Tati, anything starring the overwrought rubber-faced Louis De Funes and virtually every French comedy from the late 70s to early 90s and often remade as equally detestable Hollywood hits), or when they trot out their horrendous historical dramas (in recent years almost always directed by the lead-footed Jean-Paul Rappeneau) and, of course, anything from the pretentious Jean-Luc Godard.

So this is a generalization and tremendously unfair, but for whatever reason, the aforementioned gives me enough ammunition to blame the French for everything. French movies I detest are so numerous that the thought of having to watch them forces me to conjure up images of cheese-gobbling, wine-slurping, beret-adorned, effete aesthetes of the most ridiculous kind - inflicting their dipsy doodlings upon us with carefree abandon.

What I really look forward to, though, are French crime pictures and thrillers. For me, they can almost do no wrong here (save for Godard, who alternately gives me headaches AND a sore ass). Jean Pierre Melville (Bob Le Flambeur), Claude Chabrol (Le Boucher), Henri Georges Clouzot (Diabolique) and even the boneheaded (but stylish) Luc Besson (Leon the Professional) have served up - time and time again - thrills, scares and existential criminal activity that turn my crank like there's no tomorrow.

Most importantly, I worship the ground Robert Bresson walks upon.

With this in mind, his astonishing Pickpocket delivers EVERYTHING I could want from the French - Bresson AND crime.


Bresson, of course, is all about breaking the rules and flouting convention. Pickpocket is no exception to this tradition. What's most phenomenal about Bresson, is that when he's working within a genre framework, he clearly understands the rules and grammar of cinematic language so well that he's able to veer into dangerous territory and do so in such a way that the work is not only fresh, but still delivers the necessary frissons genre pictures need in order to deliver the goods. Like his WWII P.O.W. picture A Man Escaped, Pickpocket is rife with both atmosphere and suspense - both of which soar due to his rule-breaking that places an emphasis on touches so profoundly real that he plunges us deeply into the worlds and minds of his characters in ways most other directors can only TRY to do.

Pickpocket follows the adventures of Michel (Martin La Salle), a sensitive young man who could do anything with his life - he's clearly sharp-witted and intelligent, but when he discovers his talent for picking pockets, he attacks this pursuit with an almost fundamentalist zeal. His mother (Dolly Scal) is dying in poverty and he seeks to redress this situation by stealing. That said, he's so ashamed of his prowess at stealing that he finds it hard to face his mother and leaves her in the more than capable hands of the beautiful Jeanne (Marika Green), a neighbour and caregiver to the old woman.

His best friend Jacques (Pierre Laymarie) is aware of Michel's criminal activities and desperately tries to sway him on the right path, but instead, he strikes up a working relationship to with two sleazy accomplices (Kassagi and Pierre Étaix) who not only assist him, but provide additional tutelage so he can become even more brilliant at deftly removing money from the wallets of all manner of marks - mostly in crowded subways (a la Samuel Fuller's classic noir picture Pickup on South Street).

Add to this mix, a cat and mouse game he plays with a police inspector (Jean Pélégri) and it all adds up to a classic crime picture. Bresson's approach to material, an approach that might have been hackneyed in less capable hands, yields a movie that is so original that it feels like a clutch of syrup-laden maraschino cherries on a nice hot fudge ice cream sundae.

Bresson never appears to use any closeups, or for that matter, a sparing use of wide shots. Almost the entire film is framed in medium shots - allowing for a consistent visual treatment that works ever-so beautifully with the perverse cutting style which avoids cutting on action, but does so before or after action. This allows for a deliberate pace that renders the pickpocketing sequences unbearably suspenseful and also makes the pleas of those who love him all the more powerful. In a sense, the audience almost becomes a part of the Greek chorus of those who would have Michel walk the straight and narrow.

This, in a nutshell, is very cool.

Bresson's approach also captures the world and atmosphere with utter perfection. Everything from the cafes, to Michel's austere apartment, the racetracks, the crowded subways and his mother's death room all have the unmistakeable whiff of real life. They're not stylized in the usual fashion of crime films - no baroque, noir-ish qualities here. He shoots it all straight on and in this fashion, creates both consistency in his mise-en-scene, but a world that never feels manufactured.

This is the beauty of Bresson, of course. He doesn't want to overtly manipulate the proceedings, but in his austerity he does indeed, like all great filmmakers - manipulate AND manufacture.

Is it any surprise that redemption, of some kind, is just around the corner? And, given the film's indebtedness to Dostoyevsky, the redemption is not overburdened with the usual tropes of morality. Morality hovers just above the surface, but doesn't actually get in the way of the picture's emotional and narrative trajectory. Immoral behaviour is, frankly, a lot of fun to experience - at least vicariously - and Bresson does not deny us this simple pleasure. He just does it in ways that no other directors have ever been able to successfully master in quite the same way.

Pickpocket is a corker of a crime picture and because Bresson infuses it with his unique voice, it's not only a fine bedfellow with the best of Chabrol, Clouzot and Melville, but occasionally astral-projects itself above the mutual resting place of the aforementioned.

Robert Bresson strikes again.

Pickpocket is a great picture and one that served as a huge inspiration to all the crime pictures that followed it.

Oh, and just for fun, watch Pickpocket back-to-back with Paul Schrader's American Gigolo and you'll be plunged into movie-geek Heaven.

"Pickpocket" is part of the TIFF Cinemtheque's major retrospective organized and curated by the legendary programmer James Quandt. Aptly titled "The Poetry of Precision: The Films of Robert Bresson", this and every other Bresson film is unspooling at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and over a dozen cinemas across North America. "Pickpocket" is also available on a stunning Criterion Collection DVD. This is definitely worth owning, but only AFTER or in TANDEM with seeing the picture ON A BIG SCREEN - ON FILM. "Pickpocket" is screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox Friday February 10 at 6:30 PM and Thursday March 1 at 8:45 PM. To order tickets and read Quandt's fabulous program notes, visit the TIFF website HERE. To read my opening tribute to Bresson and this series, feel free to visit The Robert Bresson Man-Cave™ HERE.