Wednesday, December 10, 2008


I had a shorter blog ready originally, but I'm choosing to paste in my short paper #1 instead. I feel the paper is more interesting because it gets into specifics more, and isn't just a general yarn about the film.


Robert Bresson’s 1959 film Pickpocket is a complex and rich film, and offers much to dissect and study. One of the striking things about this film is the intimacy the viewer feels with Michel, despite what an emotionally distant man he is. Although most films hope to achieve a closeness with their protagonist, Bresson manages to do so despite the fact that the protagonist is a petty thief, and he does so through the use of the method of storytelling, basic film techniques (cleverly employed), and the film’s use of non-actors.

Most of the film takes place in a few key locations: Michel’s apartment, the bar where he meets his friend Jacques and the Inspector, the Inspector’s office, and the subway system. There are of course a few other outdoor scenes, but the bulk of the film takes place in these indoor areas. This constant time spent indoors in these cramped and crowded locations adds to the feeling that the viewer is close to Michel. The camera follows Michel along the street, up and down the stairs, through tight crowds and cramped subway cars, and back and forth through his apartment, often with very few cuts (if any). This keeps the viewer close to Michel at all times, as though they are walking alongside him. The constant buzzing of passersby in the bars and subways, and the suffocating proximity to Michel in his apartment and Inspector’s office, put the viewer in the position that Michel is in: cramped, surrounded, and tense. Just as Michel is in a state of constant paranoia as the film progresses, the viewer is sucked in and becomes as paranoid as he does, reaching a climax near the end of the film.

Another way in which the film makes the viewer close to Michel is through the way the film is told. The film opens with Michel penning his confession, and telling the viewer that they are about to hear his story. This, along with the other occasional breaks of Michel writing, are excellent ways that the film draws the viewer in, and gives them a sense of voyeuristic pleasure. The viewer feels that they are getting an inside glimpse into a sordid story, which no one else is getting. The film truly takes advantage of cinema as an isolated viewer’s experience. When one is sitting in a dark movie theater, it is just them and whatever is on the screen, no one else; this is why this film is so successful in making the viewer feel close to Michel. The constant voice-over narration through the film keeps the viewer close to Michel as well, as his voice is ever-present, guiding the viewer through the tangled path of his career as a thief.

Another set of amazing things about Pickpocket, that really help make the film so suspenseful and powerful, are the editing and direction of the film. While any film should ideally have excellent direction and editing, Bresson uses these so effectively that it has to be noted. Much of the film is filled with long and slow takes that follow Michel as he wanders aimlessly through his own life, but in contrast to that are the actual pocket-picking scenes, where the editing is very rapid-fire. There are quick shots, sometimes of the same subject from different angles, which treat the viewer to a dizzying and thrilling inside window to the crime. This once again satisfies the voyeuristic curiosity that most humans posses. In addition to the power of the simple quick nature of the cuts, there is also the subject that is being focused on. The extreme close-ups of fingers and hands working smoothly and somewhat frantically are contrasted with the calm and composed, almost bored faces of the men committing the crimes. This makes the viewer feel as though they are in on the crime. When the protagonist is a criminal, and is presented as sympathetic as Michel is in this film, the viewer begins to side with them, whether they know it or not. Getting the inside view on the crime, via the editing and direction, only adds to the intimacy that the viewer feels with Michel and his accomplices, despite knowing hardly anything about them!

One of the most interesting things about this film, is that it is populated with non-actors. This practice is rare to begin with, and in today’s film world almost unheard of. Because viewers are used to an actor conveying all of their character’s feelings to the viewer through body language, facial expression, and vocal patterns, the viewer is used to being spoon-fed what the character is thinking and feeling. Pickpocket’s cast of non-actors does not follow the same route. The non-actors mostly recite and stare their way through the film. This is not to say they don’t do a good job, the characters themselves are very emotionally distant and detached from everything, and so the choice of non-actors is a perfect one. Martin La Salle, the man who plays Michel, does an admirable job despite the film being his first, and not being a trained actor. The viewer sees him as sad and sympathetic, an unfortunate man trying to find his way. However, one must recognize that this is due to the Kuleshov Effect, which is a theory that emphasizes the effects of film editing. Martin La Salle’s face could just be a blank stare, but coupled with the tragic soundtrack of the film, shots of Jeanne (the love interest), and his somber voice over, he’s suddenly the saddest man who ever lived. This is not an attack on the film, but rather an admiration of it. In choosing non-actors who would mostly be blank slates, Bresson was free to do whatever he wanted with them, and was able to build an emotionally blank character. Another strength of the non-actor is that, as mentioned before, the viewer is not being spoon-fed the emotion, and as a result he or she must make an effort to figure out what the character is feeling. This can often result in the viewer projecting their own feelings onto the character. Because nothing is being given to them the viewer must project something onto the characters so that they can connect with them. This is mostly an unconscious process, and just a natural reaction to viewing a film. The viewer must connect with the character in some way, whether consciously or unconsciously, and applying one’s own feelings to a blank canvas of an actor can be very effective. This is what happens with the mostly apathetic characters in Pickpocket.

All throughout Pickpocket there is a sort of emptiness, the film is really about the whining of an apathetic young man and those around him. The characters drift in and out of many of the scenes, and Michel especially does not even seem to make eye-contact with anything more than a few times in the film. In the hands of nearly any other director, this film would be intolerable. In the hands of Robert Bresson, through his use of engaging storytelling, clever editing and framing, and malleable non-actors, the film becomes a craftily executed work in crime and punishment. The film achieves the quality of a tragic opera, which is only emphasized by the somber soundtrack and theme, which book end the film. Pickpocket still holds strong nearly 50 years later. Sadly, in a time when people are used to having everything spoon-fed to them, it may not last much longer.

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