“Knowing a deed is bad doesn’t stop you.”
In this review, I get to be all posh because I’ve actually read the source material. This is probably a pretty rare thing, so I’m going to cash in and use all kinds of cool analysis, comparing the film to the book, asserting myself as an intellectual and whatnot, so here we go. Pickpocket is a 1959 film by acclaimed French director Robert Bresson that is loosely based on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. An important product of the French New Wave, Pickpocket makes innovative narrative choices that set it apart from similar films and lock it in place as one of Bresson’s most important works.
Usually it’s pretty clear when a movie is doing something new. I can often say, “Golly. This is some cool camerawork.” or “Gee whiz, this plot structure is off the rails!”, but there is something about unique about Pickpocket that I really didn’t get for a while until after I did some research. You get a lot of narration, but it all just feels so simple. The lines were delivered fairly deadpan, and everything felt so purposefully low stakes. I wasn’t quite sure what this minimalism was all about until I figured that’s exactly what it was about – minimalism. Bresson loves this stuff, casting inexperienced actors and using very little cinematic elements to tell his stories. He keeps the focus on the plot, and he doesn’t even want his actors to move around that much. It’s all very small. I think the success that comes out of this is a really focused film. Every word spoken, every movement of the camera, the very few moments when music is actually played beneath the scene – it all feels important, because the movie holds so few things as special.
Pickpocket is an interesting film if you’ve read Crime and Punishment. All the details of the plot have been changed, but the overall idea is the same. Instead of murdering a pawnbroker as Raskolnikov does in the novel, this film’s protagonist Michel engages in frequent acts of thievery. What really made me smile was that they kept in Dostoevsky’s “extraordinary man theory” almost verbatim. Michel justifies his actions under the assumption that he is exceptional, that some men should overstep the laws of society due to their greatness. However, just like in the source material, this philosophy (inspired by the work of Nietzsche,) is rejected once the protagonist faces his punishment and works towards redemption with the help of a kind friend. This was probably my favorite part in the novel, the justification that leads Raskolnikov to commit a horrible crime, so I’m glad they included it in the film when so many other aspects were cut.
The psychological exploration of the novel was also present to a degree. It was toned down a few notches for this whole minimalism thing, but the constant droning narration of the main character feels like something straight out of Dostoevsky. You see his paranoia and inner conflict as he’s torn between his love of crime and the obligations he has to the ones he loves. Most major characters from the novel were represented well in the film, with a noteworthy performance by Marika Green as Jeanne, the counterpart of Sofya from the original text. Green plays her character with such warmth that it rings very true for her to be the one that helps Michel find redemption. The cuts from the novel, all the Russophile stuff and some of the lesser plot points, all feel completely natural and allow the film to find its way as an independent film.
I have to say I was really impressed by this movie when all is said and done. This minimalism that drives the film creates a strong sense of suspense. Every scene in the film is an intense, slow burn. I wasn’t even sure if the film would end in the same way as the novel, so I was on the edge of my seat for the whole thing. Martin LaSalle’s performance matches Bresson’s directorial style perfectly, and his strange sort of reservedness keeps the film oh so interesting. On the whole, the focused tone of the film really works, and it’s something I would like to see implemented more today. My biggest gripe with the movie would probably be that everything feels low stakes. Dostoevsky wrote about murder and how a man is trying to achieve greatness and overstep the bounds of society for the greater good, but now we’re just watching some sweaty guy pick pockets. It’s still a cool story, just not as heightened. (Although I have to say some of the pickpocket techniques were really mesmerizing to watch. I later read that the film was banned in some countries for showing real thieving maneuvers and the governments were worried they would be copied. That’s always neat.)
On the whole, Pickpocket is a great example of the French New Wave and stands out as a successful experiment in minimalist film. There’s a tone to this movie that I really can’t equate to any film I’ve seen before, but it pays off in spades. This is a suspenseful, intriguing tale that does tremendous justice to the themes of its source material. If you’re interested, I’d say give it a watch.
Films Left to Watch: 969