Robert Bresson once again uses the intensely physical to explore the deeply philosophical. In the case of Pickpocket, the act of lifting a wallet from a man’s jacket is a means to consider what the act of thievery swipes from the thief’s soul.
Why do we steal? Is theft always wrong? Can those who break society’s moral codes ever be at ease? These are the sorts of questions prompted by Bresson’s intricately detailed film. Michel (Martin LaSalle) trolls the racetracks and train stations of Paris looking for unwitting victims. When not actively thieving, he spends hours honing his craft: slipping watches off table legs with a single gesture; sliding a wallet in and out of a jacket pocket; playing pinball to increase the dexterity of his fingers. (Bresson records this diligence with the same artful devotion he brought to the prison routines of A Man Escaped.)
Perhaps Michel is so devoted to his craft because he sees it as a declaration of independence. Although his friend Jacques (Pierre Leymarie) presents him with job opportunities, Michel rejects them, proclaiming himself to be better than such everyday occupations. He considers himself a “useful thief,” one whose skill and intelligence puts him above the law. Don’t think of him as Robin Hood, however; it’s the hiding place behind his bed that receives the spoils, not the poor.
And yet, despite this philosophy and the elation he feels after picking someone’s pocket, Michel is also at the mercy of his conscience. “Are you all trying to drive me mad?” he yells in response to the disapproval he feels from Jacques, another friend named Jeanne (Marika Green) and eventually the police. In truth, it’s his own qualms that bedevil him, evidenced by the fact that he can’t bring himself to visit his mother, even when she’s on her deathbed.
For a brief time near the end of the film, Michel describes himself as being “at ease.” He’s stopped stealing and has offered to get a regular job to help care for Jeanne and her fatherless child. This emphasis on sacrifice over self ironically brings Michel – the champion of the individual – a personal peace. But can Michel sustain such self-sacrifice? That’s the question Bresson forces us to consider, not only of his movie, but of ourselves.