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The Criterion Collection presents
Pickpocket (1959)

"I believe in God, Jeanne. For three minutes." 
- Michel (Martin La Salle)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: November 07, 2005

Stars: Martin La Salle, Marika Green, Pierre Leymarie
Director: Robert Bresson

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:16m:01s
Release Date: November 08, 2005
UPC: 037429209523
Genre: foreign


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A+ A+AB+ A-

DVD Review

Grace isn't usually an attribute we associated with a proletarian entertainment medium like motion pictures, but in many respects it's the signature aspects of the movies of Robert Bresson. His films are poetic without being precious, careful without being solipsistic; it's hard to think of a director who consistently maintains this high level of control over his movies, and to such quietly devastating ends. Pickpocket is exemplary Bresson, and at just over an hour and fifteen minutes, retains a breathless quality for almost all of its brief running time. It's a narrowly focused world, and one that's drawn exquisitely and movingly.

The hero and title character of the piece is Michel, who plies his trade on the streets of Paris—Bresson, though, isn't interested in gritty, noiry urbanity, but in what you'd have to call a crisis of conscience on the part of the pickpocket. Michel's crimes are fetishized, shot in extreme close-ups as he slips wallets out of pocketbooks and watches off wrists—some have called these sequences almost sexual in nature, but they strike me more as images of a man in the throes of an addiction, Michel as a junkie in need of a fix. Anyway, his world is limited—his room is bare, he has few acquaintances, let alone friends, and the best he can do for his ailing mother is to drop off some of his pilfered earnings with a neighbor, unable to bear even being in the same room with the dying old woman. That neighbor, though, is crucial—her name is Jeanne, and she's the one ray of hope in the darkness of Michel's seemingly amoral world.

Bresson insists that we empathize with his hero, and we do—it's hard to think of a movie with more shots of its protagonist walking directly toward the camera, not quite confronting us, but making us complicit; and the candor of Michel's voiceovers makes them resonant, even if he's really no more than a petty criminal. And one of the astonishing things about Bresson's achievement is that, with even a modicum of reflection, we realize that we don't know anything about Michel at all, really—he's a perfectly existentialist character, he is what he does.

That's not to say, though, that this is all just a meditation on the human condition, which would likely be unbearable. A tour-de-force sequence on the trains of Paris showing Michel and some comrades in action is terrifically vital and fluid filmmaking—the bad guys delicately lift their marks' wallets, empty them of their useful contents, and return them just as delicately to their handbags and breast pockets. It's an incredibly influential bit of filmmaking, as well, echoing through decades of caper films. And Bresson's careful eye extends of course to casting—the actors aren't always given a whole lot to say or do, and many of them aren't professionals, but their faces overflow with expressiveness, bringing us into the inner emotional lives of these characters.

I don't think I'm giving anything away by mentioning that Michel comes to the inevitable bad end—it's the necessary conclusion for a movie like this one, but the film is about a whole lot more than whether or not crime pays. But it's the contours of Michel's emotional journey that make this such a powerful movie, and a reminder that the most punishing prison of all can be the one inside of your own head.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Much of the black-and-white photography is simply ravishing here, and when the image quality dips, it seems to be a problem with the source material, and not the transfer.

Image Transfer Grade: A

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoFrenchyes


Audio Transfer Review: It's been a long time since French class, and I'm awfully rusty, but the mono track sounds reasonably clean, if limited in its dynamic capacity.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 17 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
4 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by James Quandt
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet with an essay by Gary Indiana
  2. color bars
Extras Review: The extras package is generous but not overwhelming—there's the danger of subsuming a movie as delicate as this one, but that never happens. Bresson scholar James Quandt provides a commentary track crammed with information—his style is a little stilted, and he's clearly reading verbatim from his script, but he's excellent on everything from the influence of Dostoyevsky on the story to Bresson's use of sound and composition. He calls the film Bresson's masterpiece, "swift but majestic," and he certainly lays out a persuasive case.

Paul Schrader agrees with him, in a video introduction (14m:47s) that you'll probably want to watch as an epilogue instead, as it spills out pretty much the whole story of the movie. Schrader calls Pickpocket the most influential movie on his own career, and the debts Schrader owes, in his script for Taxi Driver especially, are obvious. In 2003, Babette Mangolte sought out the film's principal cast members, a journey that took her as far afield as Mexico City—the result is The Models of Pickpocket (52m:11s), a reflection on the experience shared by these novices almost half a century ago. Bresson seems very much the public intellectual in a 1960 French television interview on a show called Cinépanorama (06m:26s), though that certainly comes with misgivings for the director, who would rather the focus were on the movie, and not its director.

A 2000 Paris Q&A (12m:54s) features Marika Green, who played Jeanne, and filmmakers Paul Vecchiali and Jean-Pierre Améris, taking questions from adoring film students, and the movie's canonization couldn't be more evident. A clip (11m:33s) from a 1962 French television broadcast features Kassagi, a consultant to Bresson on the making of the film and a master pickpocket himself—here he turns crime literally into a circus, performing his tricks in a ring before an audience. Gary Indiana's loving accompanying essay is full of insights; and special mention should be made of the Parisian street noise that plays over the main menu, very much capturing the atmosphere of the feature.

Extras Grade: A-

 

Final Comments

A devastating, carefully crafted film from Robert Bresson, one for which the word "masterpiece" is not too strong. Criterion's presentation is exemplary—technical values are strong, and the extras package is illuminating. Very highly recommended.

 


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