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Robert Bresson on Pickpocket (1959)

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

This 1959 French television interview with Robert Bresson on his then-just-released masterpiece  Pickpocket is interesting for a number of reasons.

Compare this to his interview on L’Argent, made in 1983, roughly a quarter of a century later. Here, Bresson is relaxed, basking in the glow of admiration his film has justifiably received, but also in the fact that the new critics of the period at the influential journal Cahiers du Cinéma have singled out Bresson as one of the few “old school” directors worthy of continued critical attention, along with Jean Renoir, Jean Cocteau, Jean-Pierre Melville and a few others.

Bresson here is at the top of his game, and he knows it; the questions are cold, hard, almost prosecutorial, but Bresson is more than up to the task of responding. He is beyond attacks now, consecrated by the New Wave as one of the few filmmakers that matter. The interviewers take his work seriously, and their roles as critics seriously, in sharp contrast to the “happy talk” interviews that predominate today, when someone comes on television to “plug” their latest film.

Bresson here has nothing to prove, and he knows that no one will contradict him; his reputation and his work speak for themselves, but more — the surrounding culture also respects his work, and he is entirely in tune with the cinema of his era. By 1983, cinema has changed so much that it’s mostly escapist genre fare, something that Bresson deplores; in 1984, François Truffaut, the leader of the Cahiers critics, and later a brilliant filmmaker in his own right, will die, and the world of cinema he championed will begin to expire with him.

But for now, all is in order, and the right priorities are being addressed; listen to what Bresson has to say about film, his work, and his guiding precepts.

Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959)

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

Click here, or on the image above, for some scenes from Pickpocket.

“From distant climes, o’er wide-spread seas, we come,
Though not with much éclat or beat of drum,
True patriots all: for, be it understood:
We left our country for our country’s good.”

—George Barrington, A History of New South Wales

This perfect film from Robert Bresson, one of the cinema’s greatest directors, is only 76 minutes long, and seems almost devoid of action, and yet it’s one of the most thrilling, and cerebral, of all “crime” films. Michel (non – professional Martin LaSalle) is a young man who lives in a garret, and supports himself through a life of petty crime on the smallest possible scale. At the same time, he feels himself to be a “superior” being, smarter and more valuable to society than any average person.

Michel idolizes the pickpocket George Barrington, a real life criminal who was known as “the prince of thieves,” and despite the efforts of his friends Jeanne (Marika Green) and Jacques (Pierre Leymarie), Michel persists in his marginal, self-destructive lifestyle, even going so far as to match wits with the Parisian police (in the person of an unnamed Chief Inspector, portrayed by Jean Pélégri).

But things really get serious when Michel falls in with a professional thief (brilliantly portrayed by stage magician and illusionist Kassagi, who also served as a technical consultant on the film), and embarks upon a life of crime in earnest. It’s only a matter of time, of course, before he gets caught – - -

To say anymore about this superb film would be to deprive the reader of the pleasure of experiencing it for her/himself; Bresson was one of the cinema’s foremost and most individual artists, who made only a few films. Each one is a deeply personal statement, designed both as philosophical inquiries into the human condition, and as absolutely unique examples of pure, sculptural, pared-down cinema.

Despite the rigorous visual style Bresson employs throughout all of his work, Pickpocket is still — somewhat paradoxically — deeply accessible to contemporary audiences — my students, for example, regularly single it out as one of their favorite films in my Introduction to Film History course.

It’s available on Criterion DVD in an immaculate transfer, and at 76 minutes, there’s really no reason why you can’t buy or rent a copy, pop it into the DVD player right now, and experience it for yourself. I’m sure there are streaming copies as well.

Here’s an excellent essay on the film by critic Gary Indiana.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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