Bresson's works tend to be thematically and stylistically difficult, preoccupied as they are with moral, religious, or existential issues. His special gift for creating spiritual meanings from simple images and vignettes is especially evident in ‘Pickpocket’.
In this meditation on the human condition, Michel (La Salle) is an unsettled polite young man who chooses to be a pickpocket rather than find more legitimate work. This austere tale was inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic novel Crime and Punishment. It's a chilling work that leaves room for many interpretations of the petty thief and why he gets such a thrill from breaking the law.
Though there's plenty of feeling boiling over from the inner being of Michel, but what's presented is a cold representation of someone who is confused about who he is and is self-destructive and suffers from an inferiority complex he masks by pretending to be superior. He acts brazen like the hero in Dostoyevsky, to see if he can operate outside the normal boundaries of morality as he seeks to prove that because he's superior he can get away with things ordinary mortals can't. Therefore it's a study of a man who is obsessed and needs to find answers on why he should live.
Michel falls back on two classic psychological maneuvers to stay afloat. First, he resorts to the emotional thrill of courting danger, by challenging the law, to feel alive. He becomes the quintessential rebel-without-a-cause. Second, he uses the pretense of intellectual superiority to disguise his pervasive feelings of worthlessness. Michel will persist in his compulsive delinquency until he experiences the restrictions of a substitute father – the law – as embodied in the compassionate Police Inspector.
All Bresson wanted was physical movement. No emotion, no style, no striving for effect. What we see in the pickpocket's face is what we bring to it. Instead of asking his actors to “show fear,” Bresson asks them to show nothing, and depends on his story and images to supply the fear. Bresson, one of the most thoughtful and philosophical of directors, was fearful of “performances” by his actors. Except in his first two films, Bresson used non-professional actors, which he called "models," to satisfy his vision of a more natural kind of performance (relatively expressionless and emotionally flat delivery) than he had been getting from the professionals. He famously forced the star of “A Man Escaped” (1956) to repeat the same scene some 50 times, until it was stripped of all emotion and inflection.
Michel also feels detached from the rest of humanity, floundering about in existential isolation and angst. He sits in his apartment and reads his books, and treasures an image of himself as a man so special that he is privileged to steal from others. Also, of course, he gets an erotic charge out of stealing. On the Metro or at the racetrack, he stands as close as possible to his victims, sensing their breathing, their awareness of him.
Bresson's Michel, like Dostoyevsky's hero Raskolnikov, needs money in order to realize his dreams, and sees no reason why some lackluster ordinary person should not be forced to supply it. The reasoning is immoral, but the characters claim special privileges above and beyond common morality.
There is something sexual about it all. The world of the pickpockets can be viewed, as some critics argue, to be an allegory suggesting the world of homosexuality in the 1950's was a forbidden underworld, one in which men gradually entered in secret, and which was hidden from organized society - just like the pickpockets in the film. The hero's involvement is due to an emotional obsession with the thrill of picking pockets - a metaphor for the irresistible pull of forbidden sexual acts.
It's no coincidence that when another pickpocket spots Michel at work and confronts him, it is in a men's room; their liaison involves money as a substitute for sex. There is incredible buried passion in a Bresson film, but he doesn't really find it necessary to express it. Also great tension and excitement, tightly reined in.
Robert Bresson was a meticulous craftsman – he employs few establishing shots (which means that viewers have to participate actively in the viewing experience if they want to be able to follow the storyline) and little camera movement, Bresson distills narrative down to a particular essence of looks, gestures, and precisely placed audio effects. The camera uses close-ups of hands, wallets, pockets and faces in a perfectly timed ballet of images that explain, like a documentary, how pickpockets work. His mise-en-scéne is as understated as his montage is aggressive—creating performances out of reaction shots, using sound to signify off-screen events.
Bresson is well known for making films that reflect his Catholic values, often with themes of redemption at their core. There is also the theme of redemption in Pickpocket, in fact most of his films - in the great “Mouchette” (1966), a young girl--an outcast in her village and a victim of rape--finds a way to shame her enemies.
Where modern “faith and values” films tend to hit audiences over the head with their messages, Bresson is tasteful and subtle. Rather than a sermon, he offers up a parable, and even those who don't share his faith can appreciate what the film is trying to say. In essence, his compulsion is a subconscious disconnection of his mind from his body, a separation between his ambitious, theoretical ideas, and his common, unremarkable existence. His attraction to a life of crime is a reflection of his psychological fear of failure - his inability to achieve his perceived potential - a suppressed realization that he is not the "extraordinary man" that he believes himself to be.
A fascinating and beautiful film…