On watching Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket

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At some point in his career, Jean-Luc Godard has allegedly declared that “Robert Bresson is French cinema, as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is the German music.” He was certainly one of the more stylistically original of the French auteur filmmakers, never subjecting himself (unlike Godard) to the compromises necessitated by commercial cinema. His 1959 film Pickpocket is by many regarded as his masterpiece, with the film topping Susan Sontag’s list of ‘best films’.

On a first viewing, the film invites further comparisons to Dostoevsky, at least with regards to the plot, which seems to be loosely based upon Crime and Punishment: a young man called Michel (played by Martin LaSalle, who at the time was a non-professional actor) becomes a petty thief that gets sent to prison after committing a series of transgressions on the streets of Paris. While imprisoned, he finds redemption through his love of Jeanne (Marika Greene). But while Raskolnokov is moved to his crime by lofty philosophical arguments and finds recourse from his debauched utilitarian motives in a kind of spiritual transcendence, Michel is driven to crime by a sense of ennui and is fascinated more by the very art of pickpocketing than any of its metaphysical (Nietzschean) implications. His moral stance does not change, he is convinced of the wrongness of his acts, but resorts to them from a lack of alternatives: it is only through a confrontation with society that he is able to realise his place in it.

(I am giving the above kind of prosaic plot summary as per standard critical practice. However, when talking about Bresson, there is at least one way in which following such practice is out of place.)

Andre S. Labarthe, writing on Pagnol in Cashiers du Cinéma in 1965, proposed a division of film auteurs with ‘what we remember about their films as the basic criterion.’ Thus in Pagnol, one remembers a character, while in a film by Bresson, a shot. This seems accurate when considering the distinctive acting style in Pickpocket with its deliberate limiting of facial, bodily and vocal expressiveness of the actors. What we normally associate with character-driven drama is the heightening of emotional portrayal according to more or less theatrical conventions. As a result, many critics have labeled Bresson’s work a rejection of the theatrical and a commitment to a kind of ‘anti-expression’. By flouting the tradition of the stage, his blank-faced actors call attention to the medium—that is cinema—itself.

The tendency toward emphasising the presence of the camera is characteristic of much modernist cinema and the Nouvelle Vague in particular, to which Bresson was somewhat of a precursor. Classical cinema, of which Hollywood of the studio system is the chief example, concerned itself with artifice and the development of narrative convention. Since the viewer identified with the camera eye, the ambition was to make the medium as ‘transparent’ as possible so as to provide seemingly unmediated access to the interesting material that was filmed. The turn to the more self-conscious modernist cinema was for many an acknowledgement of film as an art as well as a medium. No longer was it desirable to speak of characters as interesting independently of their cinematic depiction. The cinéphiles associated with the Cashiers and similar publications had a confidence in cinema and wanted it to develop into its own art form. Films like Pickpocket became exemplary of such a new, serious approach in opposition to the naivety of a cinema ‘turned toward the world’ and the dedramatisation of its characters was seen as a case in hand that a cinema on its own terms had to be cleansed of theatrical influence.

What essence would such a cleanse reveal? In the essay entitled “Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures” from 1934, Erwin Panofsky points out a formal difference that characterise the experience of each art form: when seeing a play the viewer is bound to a single point of view while the ‘essence’ of film is the deployment of many different perspectives. For this reason the exclusively cinematic art has been called an art of ‘spatial relations’ as the theatre offers what is essentially a single continuos establishing shot. One of the remarkable features of Pickpocket is the use of so called ‘constructive editing’ that does away with the establishing shot entirely and instead builds up a sense of space through such apparently uniquely cinematic techniques as the eyeline-match, where an actor’s gaze becomes an implicit suggestion as to the position of the following shot. Bresson uses such techniques to great effect, allowing him to show off the skilful hand movements of Michel while evoking the tense atmosphere surrounding his crimes by denying the viewer any general grasp of the situation. But whether the perspectives allowed through techniques such as constructive editing are in any way constitutive of cinema as an art and, in addition, radically different from those employed in cinema is to me unclear. I recall, for example, seeing Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production of Measure for Measure at the Young Vic last year in which video cameras were used by the actors themselves to film the action taking place behind large set screens (on which the footage was projected) that meant to remind us of the secret world lurking behind Duke Vincentio’s Vienna. It is an interesting case of the theatre borrowing and adapting so overtly a technique from cinema: it goes to show that the influence can be reciprocal, in which case talk of irresolvable opposition between the arts appears either naive or unnecessarily reductive.

In an interview available on youtube, Bresson defends his departure from theatrically expressive acting as an attempt at drawing attention to the mechanical aspects of life. To this extent, dedramatisation has been practiced on the stage as well in various forms (think of Beckett’s Not I or Quad, the latter having been aptly described as a “piece for four players, light and percussion”). Elsewhere he has stated that the task of the director is to justify each image in relation to the adjacent ones to the extent that only one way of doing each shot can be seen as the correct one. Such a kind of precise chain of images seems only (if ever) achievable in cinema, and one gets the sensation that one sees the closest approximation of this directorial ideal when watching Pickpocket—an essential film.

Alexander Raubo