Jean Pelegri, one of the non-professional actors in Bresson’s Pickpocket, said of his director: “He knows what he wants but he doesn’t know why.
“Nobody could be less dogmatic or more obstinate than he. He relies entirely on his instinct.” Most people think that Bresson, one of the few film-makers who has never had to compromise for commercial purposes, is an intellectual who knows precisely why he wants what he wants. Which is partly the reason why not everybody warms to his rigour and severity. But there’s no doubt that he is a great film-maker, and that Pickpocket is one of his masterworks.
It is, at base, about self-fulfilment and redemption through love – a common enough idea in films. But this 1959 epic has seldom been equalled as a philosophical treatise on the subject. The point is that the film is as much a visual argument as a spoken one. Michel (Martin Lasalle) is a petty thief who, after being arrested and then released, starts discussing the rights and wrongs of crime with the police inspector. The only way he can find a place for himself in society is to engineer a head-on collision with it. It gives him a reason to live. In that way, picking pockets becomes an exciting, almost sexual adventure. It is a kind of pact with the Devil. But he has to leave France for London when the band of thieves he joins is arrested. And when he returns he is also caught. It is only when he is visited in prison by Jeanne (Marika Green), the girl who looked after his mother before she died and is now abandoned with a child, that he realises that his whole life could be changed by love. The humiliation of prison inspires him to a desperate act of faith.
The story is told in the form of Michel’s diary, almost exclusively in mid and long shots with minimal camera movements and fade-outs as an alternative to editing. Only once does another way of working come into it when Bresson, who was fascinated by the methods used by pickpockets, describes the operations of a gang among the crowds at a railway station. He also pays great attention to the sounds of the city which resound in the small apartment in which Michel lives. The Longchamp races frame the story and one notable sequence follows another, so that the parable grips even at its most internal.
Bresson is clearly not a film-maker for everybody, but he has pursued his own way remorselessly for the best part of 40 years and he has a very faithful audience. His literary adaptations – from Giraudoux, Diderot, Bernanos and Dostoevsky – are often merely points of departure. For him, “the most important ideas in a film are the most hidden”, so the watcher has to look hard to find them. It is not an easy process but it is a rewarding one since you feel he has a profound understanding of what he is talking about. His films have little or nothing to do with those of the French New Wave but a lot to do with his Catholic background and the fact that he spent 18 months in a German prison camp during the second world war. Prison also features Les Anges du Péché, Un Condamné à Mort s’est Echappé and The Trial of Joan of Arc. And most of his central characters seem imprisoned, if only in the soul, either through their misfortunes or because society has made it inevitable. If this seems a gloomy process through which to journey, there are always points in his films where redemption and exaltation prevent glumness.