June 25, 2013  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket
Martin Lasalle in Pickpocket. 1959. France. Directed by Robert Bresson

Martin Lasalle in Pickpocket. 1959. France. Directed by Robert Bresson

These notes accompany screenings of Robert Bresson’s </em>Pickpocket</a> on June 26, 27, and 28 in Theater 2.</p>

Robert Enrico (1931–2001), a contemporary of the French New Wave directors—but one who actually went to film school—never fully realized the early promise of short films like An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, although his work was rarely imported to America where one could easily see it. On the other hand, I know of no other Oscar and Cannes Festival award-winner that was broadcast on Twilight Zone, as this short was. The film is based on the famous story (considered by Kurt Vonnegut the greatest ever written by an American) by Ambrose “Bitter” Bierce (1842–1913?). Bierce was a Civil War veteran and satirist who might be described as a poor man’s Mark Twain. (The tale of Bierce’s bizarre disappearance and apparent death in Mexico is recounted in The Old Gringo (1989), Luis Puenzo’s adaptation of Carlos Fuentes’s novel, starring Gregory Peck.) Enrico’s fascination with history culminated in his codirection of France’s spectacular cinematic celebration of the 1989 bicentennial of the Revolution. The film, like the Revolution, received mixed reviews.

Following up on other Parisian problems left over from the 18th century, guards at the Louvre recently went on strike to protest the prevalence of pickpockets who preyed on visitors and on the guards themselves. I don’t know whether anyone in the French press thought to blame Robert Bresson (1907–1999) for this, but I suspect that only in America do movies get blamed for criminal acts and society gone astray. Bresson’s Pickpocket, loosely inspired by Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer is based on the author’s White Nights), was the director’s fifth feature, having been preceded in the same decade by perhaps his most accessible works, Diary of a Country Priest and A Man Escaped. The style of Pickpocket, and most of Bresson’s subsequent films, seems to me more austere, although there is perhaps some reluctant reversion to humanistic sentiment in Balthazar (albeit anthropomorphically through a donkey, and also with roots in Dostoyevsky) and Mouchette.

Bresson’s approach to filmmaking was unique and not necessarily captivating to a mass audience. His films often include an intrusive voiceover or narration, not allowing the free-flowing storytelling of conventional films. (Paul Schrader says Bresson “has an antipathy toward plot.”) His editing is somewhat oblique, and he prefers non-actors, shying away from professional performers who might threaten to impose their vision of a character over his own. The audience is forced to lend careful attention to subtle nuance, and many people don’t go to the movies for such hard work. As Paul Schrader points out in Transcendental Style in Film, “In a medium which has been primarily intuitive, individualized and humanistic, Bresson’s work is anachronistically nonintuitive, impersonal, and iconographic.” Both Schrader and P. Adams Sitney use the word “transcendent” in describing Bresson, and there is, indeed, something mystical in his work. One could argue that this quality is inherent in cinema, but aside from its crude Méliès beginnings to its Murnau and Dreyer otherworldliness, few filmmakers fully explored and captured it. While Schrader seems to subscribe to the accepted view that Bresson’s mysticism is emblematic of Catholicism, making an elaborately detailed case for his films being “religious art,” Sitney points out that three of the director’s later protagonists commit suicide, in violation of Catholic teachings. As one may gather—since my cinematic highlights run toward John Wayne on a cavalry horse rather than Calvary; Marlene Dietrich or Anna Magnani sizing up prospective bed-partners; or a tramp on a tightrope fending off an escaped barrel of monkeys—I find that Robert Bresson is not exactly my cup of tea. But, like Walt Whitman, the movies contain multitudes, and Bresson deserves a significant place in film history.

It’s been a whole year since the passing of Andrew Sarris, the great critic who inspired this series—now approaching its fifth year—and to whom it is dedicated. Sarris found Robert Bresson “obsessively religious,” but he respected him and would certainly not object to his inclusion, although I suspect Sarris would be more likely to attend the Allan Dwan films we are showing this week.