Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket is a thematically complex, though ultimately slow (and somewhat unsatisfying) existentialist look at the life and ideology of a petty thief.
The character Michel, played with an unsettling portrayal by Martin LaSalle, navigates his world with a haunting sense of loneliness and meaninglessness. In many ways, he seems to embody the film noir antihero by developing his own moral code, with a thought-out theory distinguishing pickpocketing from larger-scale thievery, and arguing with officers of the law on when it is ethically justifiable to steal. His only real friends are more of comrades, fellow pickpocketers, and his relationships with them never extend beyond further developing their unique craft.
The story development feels very organic, moving episodically from one-off instants of thievery to dizzyingly coordinated orchestrations of pickpocketting. Some of the most captivating moments of the film have us witnessing the flow of wallets and cash bills from pocket to hand to pocket, through trains and race tracks betting offices.
In some ways it reminded me of the pulp novel In a Lonely Place, also concerning a criminal who plays dangerously close to the edge. There is almost a casual, exhibitionist eroticism in watching the pickpocketting transpire, the intimacy of two strangers close together, one slowly reaching into a jacket pocket or a purse, then turning the other way. These criminals seem to get an excitement, a high, out of committing these acts in plain public view.
Bresson creates a wholly developed and frankly believable subculture of pickpockets and their sense of order; yet his film somehow loses steam. The antihero Michel experiences a sort of revelation towards the end, but the circumstances he faces nor his stagnant emotions are not enough to convey a convincing change of heart; perhaps that’s the “point,” that his drive for redemption is largely ungrounded, but the arbitrary nature of this newfound wisdom is not very consistent with the Michel or the action we had seen prior.
Pickpocket is rich with thought-provoking themes and Godard-esque suave coolness, yet does not provide a satisfying, or very logical, conclusion.