|Michele (Martin LaSalle) right before his first time on a train.|
The film Pickpocket (1959) by Robert Bresson is one of the best movies on deception.
Although it’s full of scenes of thieves stealing money out of people’s pockets, it’s not really about the mechanics of pickpocketing at all. It’s about the emotions involved in conning others.
Michel, the main character, considers himself a special man, superior to others. He’s a youthful narcissist, isolated and withdrawn, looking for a place to belong, and he finds it among a group of fellow thieves. He tries to convince himself he doesn’t have any sort of moral problem with deceiving others, but his soul is still sensitive. He’s not a sociopath, and his guilt is an itch. Why does he feel so much fear? Does he want to get caught? (And what about his friend, that pretty girl Jeanne?)
It’s a short film at 75 minutes, but you might get bored watching it unless you slow down and allow yourself to be hypnotized into an altered state. On the surface you may be fooled into thinking it’s a realistic film shot on the gritty streets of Paris, but it’s highly stylized. The actors don’t really act. You might even find them wooden. Instead of emoting, they merely exist, almost as automatons, and even though there’s a narrative voice-over, you don’t always know why characters are doing what they’re doing. You might watch it like a magician who’s reading the description of a magic trick and doesn’t think it’s a good trick at all, until the magician sees the trick performed in front of an audience and realizes it’s actually a masterpiece.
This film is not a technical documentary about pickpockets, even if many of the pickpocketing moves and feints are correct. This film gets inside the compulsion of deception, the addictive mastery of a skill, and the submerged erotic thrill of transgressing rules.
The clip includes two scenes:
- Michel sees a pickpocket stealing a man’s wallet, goes home and naively practices what he’s seen, and then steals for the first time.
- Michel conspires with a team of men pickpocketing victims on a train, in a choreographed ballet of sleight-of-hand trickery.
(This is one of Paul Shrader’s favorite films. Shrader, a writer and director who’s used some of the same themes in his own work, wrote Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ and Raging Bull.)
Pickpocket by Robert Bresson