Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, France, 1959)
A Gallic Tony Perkins playing Travis Bickle in embryo; sans the post-traumatic stress disorder from 'Nam, of course, or Algeria, for that matter; and speaking of which, as scripted by Camus' kid conceived after a one-night stand with Graham Greene. This is Catholicism in crisis.
Or go to the existentialist headwater. The man in Pickpocket is a stream that flows from Dostoevsky's "Raskolnikov." But it flows backwards, so to speak. The man in Crime and Punishment commits murder and is undone by his own conscience. Guilt remains morally functional. Bresson's petty thief has no conscience. Yet, he is undone precisely by this moral void in him.
Two times in the dialogue, explicit reference is made to the Neitzschean concept of "The Superman." The pickpocket attempts to rationalize his essentially sociopathic conduct as a transvaluation of values, a program of amoralism for the higher human that trumps the regular ethics of plain people who take their cue from God. The closing scene in the film drives home that the would-be ubermench is a failure according to his own misguided philosophy of himself.
In the end, he requires redemption just the same as any other sinner. Even before he surrenders to the love given to him by the woman in the very last shot of the film, he had taken it upon himself at the start of the final act to provide for her and her illegitimate child by another man. Thus, the story takes a dramatic shift away from irreligious Ayn Rand-style egotism to the need to care for others; others who have faith, as the woman does, which she openly indicates to him earlier on in the film. Without the slightest reliance on any ecclesiastical reference - Pickpocket does not advocate for the church as such - the protagonist effectively comes back to it.
With at least as much if not more voice-over narration than dialogue, the exposition is given by way of an epistolary device. On a number of occasions we are reminded of this by the visual presentation of a pen-holding hand writing a letter. You may recall that voice-over is a pet peeve of mine. Not now. It is entirely appropriate in this instance, not just to reinforce that the focus is on the psychological interiority of the character rather than his actions. Beyond this, it suggests that the whole telling of the story is a formal confession. Of course, this is meaningful not in relation to secular law enforcement officials or - again - the clergy, but rather to the society at large as a requirement of personal atonement; public proof of private baptism.
Such is the power of Catholicism in France in 1959. If it sounds like post-Kierkegaard Protestantism, well, what do you expect from an anguished Christian spark of any kind, almost drowned by athesthic doubt in the middle of the 20th Century? There is certainly something akin to Dreyer and even a bit Bergman here. And then again, not. It is so definitely French. This culture is famous for its passion but the withdrawl of this very passion is always possible and infamous when it happens. Who give the cold shoulder colder than a Frenchman? This is to recognize already on the basis of this, my first Bresson ever, aesthetically there is clearly a line from his static detachment to Godard's nearly clinical gaze.
I am hard-pressed to explain my own experience of the film. The underwritten dialogue, the wooden performances, the economical editing, the lackluster cinematography - why is it so powerful? What fascinates me so much is that all of this is not working in a verite-realist way, yet it is not stylised or ritualistic either. The whole thing is obviously naturalistic but does not amount to an exercise in naturalism. On this point I am reminded of Ozu, although the Japanese director is often obviously poetic and Bresson is consistently prosaic. The film is pragmatic to the point of being almost mechanical, yet it is saturated with soulfullness. How? I honestly cannot say.
But as this is, indeed, my first Bresson ever, it is appropriate that I refrain from attempting to theorize further. Suffice to conclude by saying that the film really affected me both emotionally and intellectually. Pickpocket is a masterpiece!