© 2012 by James Clark
For a long while now, we’ve been sifting through quite recent films affording the spectacle of rather unusual figures coming to grips with turning a tide threatening to reduce their lives to painfully grotesque smallness. That gravitational crisis, moreover, reveals itself to operate along two theatres of war: an occupation of active sensibility whereby an individual coagulates and concomitantly asserts inflationary, self-destructive motives; and an occupation of the world at large by ideals (and their incorporations) spawned by that misstep (and compounding the personal dilemma).
In face of this disorienting reversal, which conspicuously (even if confusedly) entices artists often referred to as “Surrealists,” various filmmakers have deployed the resources of cinema with a view to measuring the leeway for sustained sufficiency in its context of horrific devastation. What we must not lose sight of here is that, for all their disaster-rife exertions, those films have, with one exception, fervently maintained the possibility of integral action, that is, histories burning with the prospect (however violently daunting) of coherent procedures enlivened by harmonics “out of this world” (“surreal”), since never welcomed in this world. The great irony of the reception of such films thus driven is that while most vehicles are repulsed as preposterously morbid, the most implacably negative entry—that of Robert Bresson—is generally accorded hushed reverence.
There are, I think, two main sources of this rash canonization. First of all, the tip of the iceberg placed on the screen by Bresson exudes interplay featuring human flotsam and jetsam caught up in so pronounced a doldrum that they appear to belong in the company of sinners as reinforced by Passion Plays. From out of their atrophy, ranging from listless to platitudinal, they emit variations and compounds of bloodless and/or peevish presences, victims and victimizers. Thus the innovative (Surrealist) initiative engaging appalling retreat from a primal exigency comes to be understood as some form of reconciliation with the Christian premise of impotence as embraced by an all-forgiving and bountiful Overseer. The second means of solidifying Bresson’s legacy as beyond criticism, let alone reproach, concerns his utter disregard for lucrative popularity ever emanating from his constructs and professional priorities. In an endeavor obsessed with fabulous wealth and fame (and all the patent stupidities deriving therefrom), Bresson’s investigations appear not only unequivocally saintly, but, thereby, indisputably focused to the hilt, and cogent. Such pure startlement coming into a precinct of virulent cynicism would induce tons of mawkish hyperbole on the order of Godard’s (self-serving) sound-bite, “Robert Bresson is French cinema, as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music.”
Accordingly, with a view to subduing the general approach to a roundup of Bresson’s films as comprising a colossus, a veritable New Wonder of the World, putting colleagues to shame, what will happen here is an extensive examination of his thirteen stages of reductively provocative and elusively suspicious scenarios on behalf of countering bullshit about the world we live in—but counterpointed with filmic disclosures of heartfelt resolution by other auteurs who, we hypothesize, have as much to contribute as Bresson to the prospect of freeing creative powers. To begin this shake-up on behalf of some unusual pop, we’ll follow (in two weeks’ time) the account of Pickpocket with associated exploration of craft in Babbette’s Feast and Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
Though hardly prone to doing press releases about his productions, Bresson has, in his oracular way, put forward a statement one could study for years. “The most important ideas in a film are the most hidden.” What comes to mind first (and perhaps foremost) here, is its possible affinity with a Heraclitean remark, “Nature likes to hide.” It can get started in touching upon dimensions of Pickpocket far from the very well-beaten path of response. One sequence that troubled me from the first time I saw it was the protagonist, Michel, and his cronies in crime, going on a tear at a busy railway station and then in a train. They descend on a long line at a ticket booth, Michel stands behind a woman intent on making her purchase and checking her bag, and having left her purse open; he gathers the purse, replaces it in slipping a newspaper under her arm, passes it behind to two associates who strip it of its cash, one taking off with the assets, the other passing the purse back to Michel, who returns it to the owner’s arm in exchange for the newspaper. All this is transmitted in heavy light at waist level, and the movements are lightning fast and smooth; but it still lacks credibility. Are we to imagine that every one of the several hundred passers-by is legally blind? In a subsequent incident, in the corridor of a train, a wallet is removed from a passenger by one of the gang passing closely by, stripped of the money, and then returned to the victim’s chest pocket on his return leg. This dipsy-doodling, which seems to disarm the brains and warm the hearts of art-house liberals can, on grounds less hostile toward those in business attire, appear as more a delinquent’s dream than a veritable crime. (The narrative is paced by voice-over from Michel’s diary. As a pivot from increasing humiliation, he enthuses, before the account of the aforementioned triumph, “I’d become incredibly audacious!”) Its affinities with Jacques Tati measure an exponential distance between high-spirited fortuitousness and mean-spirited egotism.
The tincture of Tati, wafting by way of entries in Michel’s diary as leaking out the action, is a thought to hold on to, as a (hidden) feature teasing to some bite a toothless rendition. (In the course of Michel’s fumbling early days, as a solo subway pickpocket, there is displayed at the platform of one station he visits a Perrier poster prominently offering for consideration a clown.) This clown motif constitutes a package of illuminative factors seemingly conversant with the Via Negativa (Negative Way) of medieval philosophy, whereby an absolutely remote God would be alluded to by means of the sense of something completely opposite to the dreary phenomena ready to hand. However, be ready—in view of a very accessible Tati—for the possibility that, in contradistinction to theological endeavors, Bresson’s domain of the hidden is very much to hand. This was his first original screenplay (as distinct from adaptations by him from literary works), and it’s carefully loaded with pitfalls for an unwary constituency he demonstrably despairs of ever productively connecting with. There is a prefatory segment, scrolling out narrative details seemingly—as primed by Baroque sacred musical accompaniment by Lulli—introducing the allowance for a pat redemption coming to a poor, frail little creature. “The style of this film is not that of a thriller. It wants to express the nightmare of a young man whose weaknesses lead him to commit acts of theft for which nothing destined him. However, this adventure and the strange paths it takes, brings together two souls that might otherwise never have met.” Coming onscreen there, is Michel, at the scene of his first, apparently earth-shattering, heist. His diary’s voice-over, doing its bit to make this a thriller, runs: “Would I have the nerve?” followed by, “I should have left…” That latter bit of common sense—not to reappear until tying the knot with the other soul—along with the premium (easily discounted) upon “nerve,” sends us back to the apparently drab (and possibly chain-saw sharp) little gesture redolent of more-of-the-same. “The style of this film is not that of a thriller” [and more’s the pity?]. Instead it deals with a “weak” man entering upon a “nightmare” of perhaps tangling with not only the law but himself, for having turned to theft by his own free will. (Nothing destined him to cheapen his life that way.) His being a conspicuous piece of work and a prize for any woman hankering for martyrdom opens a default stance of low-key affection, reconciliation with society at large and one of those prodigal sons favored by God.
Instead of Michel’s self-impressed supposition that primal energies are ablaze (his voice first comes to us in smugly remarking that so many would hope to embark upon a life of graceful crime, but so few have what it takes to really embrace it. “Most fake it… but I have done it”)—perhaps to be conveniently reformulated and relaunched later—we behold someone gaunt and grim, with pursed lips, dead eyes constantly averted downwards, stiff shoulders and arms and staccato walk, in a suit jacket several sizes too big, looking more like someone waiting for an ambulance than a diabolical crime wave. Despite Michel’s maintaining in his diary, and to a detective tracking him (who seems more in the mold of a social worker—or sociologist—than a scourge of law-breakers) that his transgressions deserve to be pardoned by virtue of his supposed exceptionality, his bodily presence, in preliminaries to becoming expert and in his hitting his stride, as a violator of lower beings, introduces to us such a compound of distemper as to establish the case for corruption that, while not shocking, persists as nevertheless nauseating and clearly beyond serious redemption. Thus the aura of disturbingly facile promotion of straightforward piety is incrementally challenged by every predatory step Michel takes, and even moreso by the denouement where he performs a “change of heart.”
Pickpocket is a film not only suffused by an exceedingly disconcerting physical presence in its leading player—a factor that brings it far more into the medium of horror than noir—but it lurches from one stunningly demeaning moment to another, in presenting its complex overdrive. On extracting, at the film’s outset, from a chic snakeskin handbag a number of banknotes from a woman intent on a horse race at a racetrack populated by hordes of well-heeled, self-assured adults (amongst which he would be red-flagged as up to no good), and being duly arrested for having in his possession an incongruous amount of money, Michel’s discordancy with himself and with an incredulous and guardedly contemptuous constabulary has about it a pronounced sense of doom. For lack of hard evidence, he is released and, in handing back his ill-gained assets, the law-enforcers give him looks denoting their disgust for the humanitarian niceties making things easy for such a pointless and toxic whelp. At his mother’s doorway he meets another facilitator, Jeanne, a neighbor who keeps an eye on the old woman and who, though surprised he wants her to hand over some money (from his recent windfall) to his Mom—“You won’t come in?”—accedes without challenging him, though her eyes indicate she finds him a bit creepy. During an interlude where his friend, Jacques, tries to get him moving on some job leads, they run across the detective on his case who steers the conversation to the subject of theft. “There is an infinite variety of thieves.” (That finding would somewhat muddy Michel’s sense of having moved mountains to gain entry to a sort of knighthood of victimizers.) This gambit elicits from the self-styled soldier of fortune a current of obviously (to listeners) puerile insistence upon his own exceptionality. “Certain skilled people should be free to act above laws that were meant for the stupid mass of men.” (This readily noted coinciding with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment carries an option of distancing from the sensualist prototype, which is not so readily noted.) Both of the listeners are educated humanitarians whose sophistication counsels them to simply observe this wobbly vessel, rather than try to argue him away from his grubby satisfactions. The detective does try to give the situation a philosophical bearing, by suggesting, “That turns the world upside down” (a dollop of folk wisdom somewhat the worse for wear in maintaining changes along these lines of normality and abnormality to be out of the question). Michel’s response to this is his usual lowering sneer. Soon afterwards, he attempts to rob a passenger in a crowded subway car—using a strategy of sudden collision and lodging the loot in a folded newspaper—but he is confronted by the observant and reluctant victim who forces him to return his money while many others watch and regard the malignancy with disgust, Michel slouching out of the station, eyes averted even more than ever. In the same vein, sometime later, Michel proudly trots out an old piece of nonfiction, The King of Pickpockets, highlighting a hero of his, a nineteenth-century felon, named Barrington, and his gadgets to help him get ahead. “Barrington interests you?” the policeman asks with cutting indifference. (He had rushed to Police Headquarters to press what he considered to be his blazing discernment. Seated in the Station House, he is heard via the diary/chronicle, “He kept me waiting.”) Trying to regain a sense of advantage, Michel replies, only worsening his sloppy case for dignity, “Everything interests me.” At this pivotal moment, just before he jazzes up the account of his successes (“I’d become incredibly audacious” [incredible, indeed]), “Jeanne confronts him with, “You’re sick… You’re not in the real world… You don’t share any interests with people.” (his repertoire of interests being merely a function of lacking grip to control and refine input). Zombie-like, with her and Jacques on a Sunday afternoon at a street fair, he rushes off to take advantage of the congestion, reaching his flat with cuts and clothes torn from a fall during his escape. Jacques turns up, reproaches him for rudeness, and Michel spews out a menu of childish inanities. “You love her! Admit it! Buy her gifts!” After he leaves, he pulls from his pocket a watch he had relieved someone from. Regarding it admiringly, he tries to console himself with “It was so beautiful.” On first accompanying Jeanne to Michel’s place, Jacques had remarked, “Look where the great man lives! In a hovel!” As he squirrels away the catch of the day, this factor of his pervasively humiliating situation cuts deeper than the scrapes from his rodent-level tumble. The trajectory of failure now become white hot, there is Jeanne’s realization he had routinely stolen from his mother. “How could you? There’s nothing worse, you know!” He seems more puzzled than hurt by this. (During his unnerving campaign in the Metro, he’s on a stairway reading Monte Interdit [No Going Up].)
The narrative, from this point, consists of Michel’s attempt at damage control. There are the fantasy coups; his pals are arrested, and he goes on the lam to London (feeling some kind of accomplishment in skipping town). He covers his two-year hiatus with some perfunctory self-disappointment—it amounting to wine, women and no song. Now explicitly at odds with his cover story of being uniquely classy, he essays turning over a new page, beginning with returning to Paris and going to Jeanne’s place. He finds her in difficulty supporting a new baby (whose father, Jacques, she could not bring herself to marry because—reading the flow, we can see that—she was attracted to the Big League martyrdom of making an honest man out of Michel, even supposing she might never see him again), he tells her, “I’ll help you. I’ll look after the child… I can be honest. Let me try.” We see him handing over his pay packet to Jeanne, devoid of any cognizance of her subdued earthy beauty, and more in the spirit of trying new pills for what ails him. Soon he’s back at that racetrack (its name, “Longchamps” [Open Spaces], so at odds with his cramped default range), he’s arrested and this time jailed, the contemptuous regard now coming from himself. “I dropped my guard and was caught… Unsupportable…” He counter-attacks, to no avail: “These walls, bars… I don’t care… I don’t even see them… (to Jeanne, through the wire mesh at the Visitors Room) You want to gloat over my downfall… Why go on living? My mind wasn’t made up…” His mind gets made up—on behalf of life—but the specifics of that assumed dazzling step belie its histrionics. After an interruption of her visits, she reappears, announces that the baby was sick (“My heart pounded,” he tells us), and, as they share a kiss through chinks in the barrier, Michel claims to be on top of the world in having mastered a great turnaround. “Oh Jeanne, what a strange path has led me to you!”
The strange path in fact is prefigured by the pin-ball game he’s playing in a bar with Jacques, as the detective comes by the first time. But Michel’s vapid and delusional gestures, for all their being empty reeds blowing in a prevailing gale toward the self-serving cheapness of bathos, do in fact trace to intuitions according remote validation of his seemingly insane claim to exceptionality. On his racing away from the racetrack with the lady’s currency that first time, we hear from him (in his diary), “I was walking on air! The world at my feet!” This, and other such incongruous flights of poetry coming from amidst a figure as drab as they get, offer for consideration a structure of motion being a strong candidate for ‘the most hidden” holding of Bresson’s art. The lady’s deluxe purse could be thought of as a form of Pandora’s Box. A repository of some semblance of power, to be sure, but power truncated to a parody of the riches of that nature which loves to hide. On Michel’s refusing to rush to his mother’s deathbed, Jacques chides him, “You say you love your mother?” and he replies, “More than myself.” In this context, that rhetorical reflex would make productive sense only if it were an oblique admission that he hates what he’s become. Michel’s perpetual attitude of biliousness and inability to make eye contact could, in view of the business with Pandora’s Box, disclose that the thrill factor of pickpocketing is, strident claims notwithstanding, a palpable travesty of the fleeting glories of quite another option in the primal transaction with dynamics. Trying to fathom his sickly brutality, Jeanne asks, “Do you think we’ll be judged?” Michel’s leaden answer, “I believed in God. For three minutes,” could be alluding to the cruel brevity of his close encounters with a manifestation leading him to believe himself to be some kind of seer, and leading him to a scattergun hostility toward a normal society (like that of Jacques and the detective) that bores and sickens him. During a visit by the cop at the latter stages of the turmoil, Michel becomes infuriated by the exigencies of historical life—“All this bores me to tears!” (By the time of the turnaround, he tells Jeanne he turned to crime in order to “get ahead.”)
On the one occasion when he does touch base with his mother, she tries to buck him up with the declaration, “You’re bright enough to succeed whenever you want.” (This interview also features him childishly trying to exorcize her impending death. “You’re going to be fine! Isn’t that right, Jeanne?” There is a cutaway to her funeral service, where Michel is the first of the trio to kneel in prayer.) His squeamishness about that impending death could be a tip-off that brightness is not enough in this game. The gusts of rousing sacred music—perhaps the most formidable hurdle Bresson faces us with as we try to make sense of his deadened narratives—would trace, not to mainstream consolations, but the omnipresent primordiality of spiritual toil, almost paradoxically dignifying lives one is hard pressed to care about. (His casting amateurs as far as the eye can see helps ensure a timbre so lacking in charisma as to be soporific.) The métier of pickpocket comprises a premium upon sudden body contact to impose a disarray upon victims. In the film at issue, the rancid nature of such sensual procedure speaks to the marvellously and toxically tempered Pandora’s Box metaphor as conjuring the world historically “hidden” showdown at the heart of dynamic creativity.
That happens to be a recurrent motif of the films of Bresson’s close friend, Jacques Demy. (While Pickpocket was in the making, Demy’s Lola—with a minor protagonist, Michel, hearkening to a noir being more than a noir, Kiss Me Deadly (with a protagonist/searcher named Mike)—was in pre-production. The major protagonist, Lola, was employed there as an exponent of body contact corrupted (this time not without charm) to a pecuniary routine.) These coincidences can assist our determining the point of the unique steadfastness of Bresson’s output. Knowing, like Demy, full well that Michel is a piece of work the likes of which you wouldn’t have to cope with very often (Demy’s fat Elvis figure in a white Cadillac convertible being a more common deflationary force), Bresson persists in pelting us with him in order to emphasize that variations of his unshakable and toxic oblivion, which is to say sensual gaucherie, (including Jeanne, Jacques and the detective [Mike also had such a nemesis]), in the last analysis just as pig-headed, make the world go round, sort of. Our auteur does not in fact tower above his colleagues. But he has been most acutely struck by a deadly fixation upon lax facsimiles of the real deal (Mike’s variant of greedy cool leading to a real spoiler), which weigh urgently upon the adventure of unlocking integral depths. While his many unattributed peers probe leeways of joy, Bresson—in this regard, anyway, a true and valid Scholastic researcher—constructs acrid memos of monstrosity to temper the excitement of epochal change. A Jeanne perplexed by Michel’s myopia sighs, “Perhaps everything has a reason.” Bresson is indeed in a league of his own in setting for himself (and us) the daunting reflective avenue of fathoming the leeway for soundness, for kinetic headway, within (almost) implacable obstruction. After that first ragged take, with its arrest and fright and humiliation, Michel scurries home and explains, “I wanted to put my thoughts in order.” Pickpocket emphasizes how truly difficult that task proves to be.