Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket is a meditation on the idea of grace.
Michel, a young man in his 20s, lives in a drab, rented room in Paris. He has no job, no real social contacts, no career path. Even though he looks like the young Montgomery Clift, he has no romantic life as far as we can see.
Jeanne, played by the 16 year old non-actress Marika Green, is the caretaker for Michel’s elderly mother. Michel barely notices her existence. Marika Green’s supermodel looks are essential to the plot. Why doesn’t Michel notice her?
Michel is in fact so indifferent to Jeanne that until the very last frame of the movie, I thought they were brother and sister.
Michel doesn’t ignore Jeanne because he’s her brother. He ignores her because he’s possessed by a demon, the compulsion to steal. Michel, who’s very loosely based on Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov is no murderer, but he is a relentless petty thief, a pickpocket who spends all day wandering through Paris looking for his victims. He lives a flat, joyless life, punctuated with brief moments of excitement that come whenever he cuts a purse or lifts a watch or a wallet. Everything about Michel’s existence, his posture, the way he moves, his hangdog expression, his tiny room, his collection of books, not on shelves, but simply piled on the floor, mark him off as a small time criminal living in continual fear of getting caught.
Michel’s life is so unfulfilled, so flat, so drab that, like Raskolnikov, he almost seems to want to get caught by the police, the anxiety over being exposed as a thief allowing him to savor those brief moments of fulfillment he gets in the act of stealing. Nothing ever changes for Michel. He always wears the same drab suit. He always walks in the same shuffling, round shouldered manner. After the police begin to tighten the net, he escapes to Milan, then London. He lives abroad for two years, but it takes up all of a minute of the film’s screen time, and, when he returns to Paris, broke, he’s still wearing the same drab suit and the same hangdog manner. When he finally does get caught, his cell looks no different from his apartment. When he says that he barely notices the bars, we believe him. His existence in prison seems no different from his existence in the outside world.
But there’s always Jeanne. Like God’s grace making itself available to an unhappy sinner, she’s always lurking near him, always there for the taking. Marika Green is extraordinarily beautiful, like an angel hidden in plain site, the Virgin Mary walking the streets of a Parisian slum. She gets pregnant by Michel’s friend Jacques. She refuses to marry him. She won’t live a lie, she says to Michel, who seems incapable of taking the hint. She visits him in prison, dutifully attending the son the way she did the now dead elderly mother. Why doesn’t Michael reach out and take the grace offered him? we think, wondering if, perhaps, if that’s how God thought after he sent his only begotten son to walk the earthy only to be rejected by sinful humanity so badly in need of forgiveness. Finally, Michael breaks down, and admits he loves her. They press their cheeks together through the bars. The light changes. Michel, no longer a drab young man in a drab suit, positively glows. He’s been saved. Salvation is easy, Bresson is telling us. So why do we work so hard at going to hell?