Robert Bresson described Pickpocket (1959), his fifth feature, as an “impatient film”. It took him only three months to outline a treatment, six weeks to cast and prepare, eleven to produce and twelve to edit. For an artist who made only thirteen features over the course of his forty-year career, it was, he said “very sudden, very fast”, it went off without a hitch.1

As a finished product, it appears as almost paradigmatically Bressonian: a taut statement of his singular and economic style identifiable by its syntax of faces, hands, isolated objects and empty spaces, shot starkly with a 50 mm lens and cut to a rhythmic soundtrack of mostly diegetic sounds. The film’s story is borrowed from Crime and Punishment — it’s about a man who commits forbidden acts, gets caught and goes to a prison, where his suffering is ameliorated by the love of a steadfast woman — but Pickpocket suppresses much of Dostoevsky’s plot in favour of a distinctly cinematic language. In making his protagonist a petty thief rather than an axe-wielding murderer, Bresson’s film focused on the mechanics of pickpocketing. In this respect, it’s a companion piece to A Man Escaped (1956), which directly preceded Pickpocket and is also a film about hands at work. In the earlier film, hands are shown constructing the tools for the hero’s suspenseful liberation from a Gestapo prison. In the latter, Bresson captures Michel’s (played by Uruguayan non-actor Martin LaSalle) dexterous deeds as they learn and ultimately master the art of pickpocketing. In A Man Escaped, the convict’s handiwork delivers him from prison; in Pickpocket, it paves the path toward Michel’s incarceration.

Bresson’s depiction of pickpocketing is almost documentary in style, but for all its tactility, it is Michel’s interior struggle that lies at the heart of the film. Though less explicitly religious than Diary of a Country Priest or The Trial of Joan of Arc, Pickpocket is equally a film concerned with what Bresson referred to as the human soul, both in its captivity and, as each of his films dramatize, its transformation. What motivates Michel’s last-moment swerve toward Jeanne (Marika Green) in Pickpocket’s final scene remains mysterious, but nonetheless intense for this. Economy and suppression—watchwords of Bresson’s style—are key. A single line of narrative combined with a reprise of Lully and the image of Jeanne kissing Michel’s culpable hands are enough to signal his spiritual liberation, even as LaSalle’s performance remains affectless, stripped of all expressivity. The scene is the counterpart to Michel’s earlier transformation in which he is wordlessly, disinterestedly, taken in hand by the professional Kassagi and initiated into the real art of what he had hitherto only practiced desultorily. The scene is all but silent, and it is only the repetition of gestures, dissected into a montage of hands, looks and objects, that marks Michel’s arrival as true pickpocket.

This mingling of the spiritual and the material is a key element of Bresson’s formalism, but throughout Bresson’s thirteen feature films, a similar tendency toward contradiction is at work. For all his emphasis on precision and control, chance is a key element of Bresson’s work. In Pickpocket, shot lists were meticulously planned, especially for the complex outdoor scenes, but when it came to filming, which Bresson deliberately scheduled for the July vacation, they were rarely consulted, let alone followed.2 Anachronisms, too, abound in Bresson. Only two films — The Trial of Joan of Arc and Lancelot du Lac — are actually set in the Middle Ages, but something like a medieval setting is often conjured by the cinematography, which makes the banks of the Seine appear like a moat, or a Gestapo prison like an ancient dungeon. Pickpocket was the first of Bresson’s film to embrace the streets, cafes and metros of Paris as a location for his films (as Truffaut and Godard did in the same year), but alongside the pinball machines and fun fare rides, blasts of Lully’s Baroque music interrupt the scene, and Michel’s garret, bare of even running water, seems to belong to the nineteenth-century rather than Pickpocket’s post-war, consumption-driven modernity.

On closer inspection, the alliance of opposites is everywhere in Pickpocket. Far from the received idea of Bresson as an ascetic, locked up in with his bare essentials and Pascalian maxims, Pickpocket is a deeply sensuous film. With his Egon Schiele-like angularity, Michel is beauteous, luminescent when in the throes of a trick, his eyes bulging as his hands covertly dip into the cavity of a woman’s purse or brush up against an accomplice at the racetrack. There’s a sumptuousness, too, to the sequence at the film’s heart: a four-and-a-half-minute ballet of the sleight-of-hand, shot on site at the Gare de Lyon, in which we see three pickpockets work both the station and the train with mesmerizing fluidity, a dance heightened by the percussive soundtrack of heels on the station floor, the sliding of train doors back and forth. The evidence of Bresson’s pleasure in constructing these sublime sequences, which hark back to an era of silent cinema, dispels any simplistic reading of him as a sober moralist. In interviews, he delighted in conveying details from his own research: “When there is a group of three, four or five very skilled pickpockets—international ones—at a gathering like Longchamp, something remarkable happens. I mean: something happens in the air as much as to the wallets.”3

Pickpocketing itself bespeaks a kind of contradiction, a refusal of the received order of private property and its tactile perversion. Money, wherever it exists in Bresson’s work, is always a token of its falsity, and along with exchange, account keeping, commerce, pawn brokering and counterfeiting, it becomes increasingly prevalent in the films, a development that coincides with Bresson’s own darkening worldview. In L’argent (1983), Bresson’s final film, made in his eighties, money’s omnipresence coincides with a despairing condemnation of contemporary society and its ills. In Pickpocket, by contrast, money is still charged with a capacity to lead to its opposite. It is another one of Bresson’s paradoxes that with Michel’s imprisonment, a pathway toward freedom emerges. When Jeanne kisses his culpable hands in the final scene, it is a beatific act of redemption. Pickpocket is one of Bresson’s purest statements and impassioned defences of form but at the same time, it’s in its proliferations of opposites, in its refusal of dogmatism, that Pickpocket’s emotional intensity operates. It’s a heterogeneity that ultimately reveals the otherwise hidden connections between man and the world for Bresson, and allows him to move across the boundaries of the visible and the invisible, the tactile and the hidden, the modern and the antiquated. Such revelations require formal commitment to irreverence, to mischief and to magic.

Pickpocket (1959, France)

Prod Co: Compagnie Cinématographique de France Prod: Agnès Delahaie Dir: Robert Bresson Scr: Robert Bresson Phot: Léonce-Henri Burel Ed: Raymond Lamy

Cast: Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, Jean Pélégri


  1. Robert Bresson, Bresson on Bresson, Interviews 1943–1983, NYRB Books, New York, 2016, p. 63.
  2. Bresson on Bresson, p. 257.
  3. Bresson on Bresson, p. 76.

About The Author

Emma Fajgenbaum is an editor at Phenomenal World and Jacobin.

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