Director: Robert Bresson
Screenplay: Robert Bresson
Starring: Martin LaSalle
Country: France
Running Time: 75 minutes
Year: 1959
BBFC Certificate: PG

The films of the French New Wave are often generalised under the most extreme examples, such as À bout de souffle and can, quite frankly, alienate viewers. Godard was like Marmite. A better place to start with this revolutionary period of European cinema is found in Robert Bresson’s work. His films were notable for their humanity and none more so than Pickpocket, his masterpiece from 1959.

The opening title card explains firmly that Pickpocket is not a thriller, but you’d be forgiven for disagreeing when young Martin LaSalle gives into temptation and steals from an unsuspecting handbag innocently hanging from its owner’s shoulder at a race-course. The tension is palpable. And yet, indeed, the film’s primary focus is drama, successfully lifting its light-fingered shenanigans to existential musings on the place of a thief in society. LaSalle wrestles with recognising his own desire to commit a crime and challenges, sometimes directly, his friends and even a police inspector. Cause and effect, crime and punishment, are concepts too simplistic for LeSalle.

It’s a beautiful, thoughtful film, though sombre and inscrutable. The actors seem to glide through the film as smoothly as their hands glide through jacket pockets. Some exchanges can border on being pretentious and frustratingly obtuse; these young Parisians have no time for smiles or music. Pickpocket is not a film to pierce stereotypes of classical French cinema, not that it would care what you think, beyond a shrug.

And yet it’s great fun. The sequences of pockets being picked are fabulous examples of editing and they are incredibly tense. Modern mainstream cinema rarely has room for a narrative that can shift gears to ponder and thrill in equal measure, but fans of Wes Anderson would find value in this classic.

VIDEO

Léonce-Henri Burel’s photography is faithfully transferred in this release. Crisp, bright, mono photography with a perfect balance of grain and contrast, brings out a tangible detail.

EXTRA FEATURES

Paul Schrader on Pickpocket: influences on Taxi Driver
The Models of Pickpocket
Robert Bresson Q&A (audio only)
Trailers
Archive Shorts

In another strong release from the BFI, the extra features are modest, but valuable. Only they could find three delightful British Public Information films from the 60s on the dangers of thieves and pickpockets, but Paul Schrader’s interview is particularly excellent.

Included in this release is a booklet featuring new writing on the film.

Pickpocket - BFI
Film
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One Response

  1. David Brook

    Without wanting to nitpick, Bresson isn’t technically part of the New Wave, though he was a highly influential figure in the eyes of the New Wave directors. He was directing films before it all kicked off. They respected his particular style though, using unfiltered cinematic technique at its most raw to tell gripping stories. As you mentioned, he kept his actors from over-doing anything and instead used straight-forward but highly effective framing and editing to tell the story and convey the drama.

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