Blu-ray Review: Pickpocket - The Criterion Collection

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One of only 13 features directed by Robert Bresson, the highly influential Pickpocket has recently been issued on Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection. It’s an uncompromisingly challenging film, one with the potential to leave viewers completely disoriented—mystified even—by the end of its scant 76 minutes. The title refers to a young French man named Michel (Martin LaSalle) who is, in fact, a skilled pickpocket. Utilizing only the most commonplace of settings and imagery, Bresson casts an almost surreal spell as we experience a period in Michel’s life that spans more than two years. But the compulsive thief seems to exist in a time loop of sorts; his rituals repeat endlessly, even as multiple accomplices help him polish and perfect his craft. The narrative’s timeline feels distorted, as if it could just as easily have covered just two weeks rather than years.

Michel is a singularly inexpressive, stoic man who never changes his ill-fitting suit. At times he seems nearly sociopathic in his drive to steal from innocent passersby. Debate exists as to the extent of influence Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment had over Bresson, who wrote Pickpocket’s screenplay in addition to directing. Thematic similarities seem unmistakable, especially during the early scene in which Michel suggests that select intelligent individuals are above the law—entitled to rob from those perceived as intellectually inferior. Yet, as pointed out in Criterion’s comprehensive supplemental material, Michel is merely a petty thief rather than a violent criminal.

Entrancing sequences depicting Michel and his accomplices (portrayed by Pierre Étaix and a real-life pickpocket billed only by his surname, Kassagi) lifting wallets, sometimes while brazenly making eye contact with their victims, provide thrilling visual hooks. Bresson stages these scenes, expertly edited by Raymond Lamy, with the precision of a finely-choreographed ballet. Michel’s interactions with law enforcement offer some of the most ambiguous moments; it seems the thief derives some form of perverse pleasure in being caught, or at least suspected. For reasons left tantalizingly vague, Michel has little desire to visit his ailing mother (Dolly Scal). She’s being tended to by a stunningly beautiful (and equally sullen) teen neighbor, Jeanne (Marika Green), who eventually engages in a romantic relationship with Michel’s friend Jacques (Pierre Leymarie).

It’s difficult to discuss Pickpocket’s conclusion without spoilers, so consider this a warning for the following paragraph. After some two years spent pulling robberies in London, Michel returns to France and finds Jeanne is now a single mother. Her relationship with Jacques, the father of her child, was not as serious as Michel believed it to be. Michel has heretofore not shown an acute interest in Jeanne, outside of a strictly platonic nature. In fact, the nature of Michel’s sexuality is easily questionable throughout much of the film, for despite his assertion that he spent much of his money on women during his London sojourn, he remains a curiously asexual being. Suddenly he professes his devout love for Jeanne, a very young woman of deeply indeterminate personality. My knee-jerk reaction was to call pure bullshit, as it seemed a far too easy way for Michel to find “redemption” from his thieving ways. But there’s enough going on beneath the surface of Bresson’s film that perhaps I’ll revise my feelings upon future viewings.

Pickpocket 1 (380x259).jpgCriterion has done their usual exemplary work in presenting Pickpocket on Blu-ray. Restored from the original camera negative, the image is terrifically nuanced. Natural fine grain is always present, maintaining a rich filmic appearance. Léonce-Henri Burel’s cinematography is awash in dramatic shadows and we’re treated to a wide range of gray tones (anchored by suitably solid black levels). The French LPCM mono soundtrack was remastered from the original 35mm magnetic tracks. The mix is sparse, but all elements boast equally flawless fidelity.

A generous selection of supplements has been ported over from Criterion’s 2005 DVD edition. Perhaps most valuable is the extremely detailed commentary by film scholar James Quandt. He’s clearly delivering a carefully-prepared monologue, which results in a somewhat impersonal tone. But he conveys a staggering amount of information and analysis that is especially useful to anyone confounded by Bresson’s work.

Paul Schrader’s 15-minute introduction sheds light on the influence Pickpocket had on his career. “The Models of Pickpocket” is a 53-minute documentary by Babette Mangolte from 2003 that catches up with three actors from the film: Pierre Leymarie, Marika Green, and Martin LaSalle. Green is also featured, along with filmmakers Paul Vecchiali and Jean-Pierre Ameris, in a 13-minute “Q&A” from 2000. Vintage pieces include “Cinepanorama” (7 minutes), in which we hear from Bresson himself in a TV interview, and “Kassagi,” a 12-minute excerpt of the Pickpocket cast member and technical consultant taken from the TV program La piste aux etoiles.

Though Criterion is soon reverting back to separate Blu-ray and DVD editions, Pickpocket is a dual-format edition, which includes a standard DVD containing all the same bonus features. The booklet includes a reprint of writer Gary Indiana’s essay on the film that first appeared in the 2005 DVD edition.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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