Thursday, January 7, 2010
The portrait of a young sociopath, with echoes of Travis Bickle ( Taxi Driver ) and Raskolnikoff in Crime and Punishment.
Michel, the hero, has been brooding for some days of finally carrying out his first pocket-picking enterprise, and he is at the races, trailing an elderly lady. He positions himself behind her, opens the buckle of her purse ( his heart is pounding ), and as the horses rush by, extracts the banknotes and loses himself in the crowd. However he is nabbed by the police, questioned and let off for lack of conclusive evidence. As he hones his professional skill, he is drawn into a net of other more seasoned practitioner of the art of picking pockets. There is a wonderful sequence, in which we see the collusive performance of the team on a train about to depart from a station, and deft motions of finger and wrist which would evoke the admiration of a pianist or a guitarist--in fact, a symphony orchestra of pick pockets.
A police official who suspects him, but lacks the proof to nail him, frequently engages him in conversation. Since Michel is a pick pocket by choice ( he could have got a job ), we learn his belief that some special people should be above the law. Meanwhile, he neglects his ailing mother, who passes away. However he is becoming overconfident and careless and he is finally caught and imprisoned. In the prison, he is visited by the young and beautiful Jeanne, a neighbour who helped out his mother in her final days. Her love for him, inspite of his social descent, moves him, and the film concludes in a redemptive moment.
What drives this young man, living in his garret with his books? The room has no latch and is perpetually open. He is a person alienated from his surroundings, and the thought of working for a living is unthinkable. The adventure, risk and danger of picking pockets serves more than his financial needs. It has aesthetic and spiritual dimensions. It fills his life--it is a role he has selected for himself in the drama of the world. Does he have feelings? Certainly he feels the blood rushing to his temple at the climactic moments of the "act"--like the bomb defusing soldier in the Hurt Locker-- and this is is what he wishes to replicate and re-enact with ascending degrees of risk and boldness. He is an artist and an addict--"the adrenalin fix"--even as he is an amoral animal. The spiritual and moral vacuum, that he inhabits is indeed a state of life that may be the signature of the times. Picking peoples pockets is a drug that restores to him the feeling of being alive. He claims to love his mother more than himself. But he persistently refuses to see her, even as she is obviously approaching her end. Is this not the disconnect that pervades human relationships, which religions have vainly sought to bridge, and perhaps this is what Bresson was trying to address. John Donne says no man is an island, but tragically, that is precisely what we are. As the saying goes, breathing is not living.
At seventy five minutes, it is dense fare. The style is muted, understated, enigmatic--Bressonian. It has the minimalism of a symbol. In Mouchette and Money, the robot-like expressionlessness serves to express extremes of feeling. In Pickpocket it serves to express a more complex state of life. Mouchette and Money are perhaps about the individual floundering in the gusts of social forces. Here the focus is on a seemingly autonomous individual and the radical choices he makes to give content to his own life.
It is perhaps characteristic of this artist to have selected the gentler art of picking pockets rather than bloodier crimes--as Dostoevsky did-- as a study of the human mind. One can pick any number of pockets--giving scope for a leisurely longitudinal evolution of theme and character-- but killing would be a single shot affair. True to his aims of precision, transparency, truth and detachment, he takes on a miniscule specimen of his subject of enquiry, the better to dwell on detail and texture---there is something entomological in his style. What is beyond doubt is Bresson's own artistic passion to be true to the inner vision which he aims to replicate on film. That is why silence sweeps his film. Better to say little, or nothing, than a false note.
A portrait of homo modernus and much food for thought. Bears a third watch.
Roger Ebert's Great Movie Review