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Pickpocket review – Robert Bresson’s magnum opus is a formalist masterpiece

This 1959 classic, now on re-release, follows the moral dilemma of a petty thief and paved the way for the French New Wave

The works of Robert Bresson offer a rich tapestry of filmmaking precision and intense minimalism, consciously denying the viewer any predictable narrative pleasures. For many filmmakers, like Paul Schrader, the French director’s features possess a transcendental quality that sees them rank as some of the most spiritual films ever made. Viewed by Schrader as Bresson's magnum opus, Pickpocket is an influential work that inspired the desolate characters across scripts such as Taxi Driver and First Reformed. Bresson’s pre-French New Wave film breaks down the components of filmmaking and strips them down to their raw essence, blending sight and sound in a formalist manner as to reflect the complexities of life.

Living alone in a small Parisian apartment, isolated from society and his family, and with few friends, Michel (Martin La Salle) is a lonesome figure cut in a dishevelled suit and permanent glum expression. In his personal life, he rejects caring for his ill mother and leaves money with her neighbour Jeanne (Marika Green) to look after her instead. His only real satisfaction comes from thievery, whether at the racecourse out in Longchamp or on the Parisian Metro. After stealing a wallet from a commuter or a significant bundle of cash, however, he is still left with a feeling of anguish following his actions.

At the core of the story is a timeless tale of crime with a police officer, a thief, and a girl. But unlike Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street, which influenced Bresson, Pickpocket consciously deconstructs the film noir format, shifting away from restoring a social equilibrium in favour of contemplation on a lost soul. Bresson’s script places a great deal of emphasis on Michel’s melancholic presence cast out in a void of nothingness, with even his greatest pleasure becoming his greatest curse. Stripping back the narrative to a series of linear events, lacking in resolution, MacGuffins, or even tension, leads to a profound dissection on the film’s core existential questions.

Paradoxically, through the director’s basic approach to the form, a deeply profound truth to human existence is uncovered. The narrative is ambivalent about Michel’s ethics and compassion for others. Achieved through the use of non professional actors, there is a distinct absence of artificial or fabricated emotions, crafting an austerity throughout Bresson’s world.

Elsewhere, the film's score is relatively sparse, with baroque music from composers like Jean-Baptiste Lully appearing in certain sequences, only to then be absent in decisive moments where a viewer would expect. Another stylistic choice that is consciously deployed is choosing to shoot on the streets rather than on artificially-made sets, linking the film directly into the history of Europe cinema and the neo-realist movement. A predecessor in approach later adopted in the pulsating French New Wave, it is hard to ignore the effect that Bresson’s style had upon the influential directors who would follow him in the early 1960s.

Pickpocket is re-released in UK cinemas from 3 June.

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