The first Bressonian film in this retrospective is Pickpocket (1959). It tells the story of an unemployed, but clever man, who is drawn to the life of the pickpocket. Though he does not seem the criminal-type, nor does he truly need to steal, his weakness and fear make pick pocketing a compulsion — a necessity — to the point where he can’t control himself from avoiding an obvious police stake and the subsequent entrapment.
Bresson’s precise camerawork is extraordinary, allowing the viewer to see — in close-detail, and marked black-and-white composition — the exact techniques used in pick pocketing. A long take where, in mere minutes, Michel (Martin LaSalle) and two others clean out several unsuspecting patrons at a train station is rather incredible, both for the meticulous cinematography as well as the competence of the actors.
Now here’s where a lot of people lose Bresson. Many seem to find that he is simply a technical genius, and that his ascetic nature causes his films to lack substance — owning up to only what is on the film, and nothing more. Everyone knows that a great film tells much of its story behind the plot, using metaphor and abstraction to either expose the truth vaguely — letting the viewer figure it out on their own — or leaving things open to interpretation.
With Bresson’s more technically virtuous films, such as A Man Escaped (1956), Pickpocket, and, especially L’argent (1983), some may be so entranced by the formal aspects of the film, and how straightforwardly it is told, that they completely miss out on the constant perpetuation of spirituality and transcendentalism in Bresson’s artwork.
In Pickpocket, one may not realize it until the final scene; it becomes clear that this film is not simply about a pickpocket, but about the separate movements of two people through life. There is an unmistakable sense of communion, natural predetermination, and fate in the moment that Michel states, “then a sweet light came up” — and together he becomes one with Jeanne (Marika Green).
This is not the end of their story, but it is a point of significance, a point where each thing (independently) occurring in their lives led them to this moment; as strange as it is, Michel’s compulsion to pickpocket, and how Jeanne is unwaveringly drawn closer to him is kismet. These things seem arbitrary and accidental, but lead to a point that is exactly how things are supposed to be.
In that final moment — in that final scene — those two people are finally connected, as if by a spiritual necessity. As the music appears, a sense of transcendentalism is felt. In what is now one of my favourite final scenes of a film, Bresson’s technical and ascetic film nature gives rise to spiritual and transcendental release. Freedom is borne of his ideas.