Pickpocket - Robert Bresson - Michel - Jeanne

1959, directed by Robert Bresson

The title character of Pickpocket, Michel, seems to have only two friends in the world apart from his accomplices. They are introduced early, one right after the other: first Jeanne then Jacques. Their names are so common in France that most viewers probably never give them a second thought. Taken individually the names point in so many directions that they’re essentially neutral; but taken together, in the order they’re introduced, the combination is distinct enough to point to the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In fact the movie matches Rousseau’s thinking so closely that the naming hardly looks accidental.

Jeanne and Jacques are Michel’s friends, but they are not complicit in his corruption. Each of them helps to guide him out of his life of crime, which is above all a state of mind. The movie thus pits one set of ideas against another, grounding philosophy in the material of real life.

Pickpocket - Robert Bresson - Jeanne - Jacques

On its surface Michel’s rationalization for his crimes looks like a simplification, filtered through Dostoevsky, of Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch – a “super-human” unconstrained by common morality. Speaking with Jacques and the police inspector, Michel posits his belief that certain individuals of extraordinary talent should be free to disregard the law in order to realize their potential. This rather facile idea is not by itself a worthy opponent for Rousseau’s philosophy, but its motivating assumptions stand for a broader system of thought that was enjoying wide currency in 1959, especially in France. Sartrean Existentialism argued for the primacy of the individual and viewed freedom as a curse; it states that each person is on his own in the world and must choose his own values. Rousseau on the other hand viewed freedom as a blessing to be worked for, but he argued that freedom only works when individuals act in accordance with the “general will” of society.

Michel is motivated by pride; his justification of thievery on the basis of exceptionalism is a form of playing God. He tells Jeanne he steals to “get ahead”, and when he’s imprisoned he’s bothered less by the walls confining him than by his wounded pride at getting caught. But pride takes many forms; his defining quality is his anti-social attitude. His behavior is incompatible with Rousseau’s ideal of a harmonious society that depends on individual participation. From the beginning until his redemption, the movie deploys all its resources to portray Michel’s willful isolation, arguing at the same time that his approach to life is unsustainable.

Pickpocket - Robert Bresson - Michel - racetrack

The racetrack scene at the beginning shows the transparent irony of a man trying to fit into society while standing apart from it. Set among the crowd of spectators, he tries as hard as he can to mimic the postures and attitudes around him. Unlike Bruno watching tennis in Strangers on a Train, he carefully makes sure his eyes follow the action in front of him like everyone else, but we can see that his thoughts are fixed, as always, on himself as he performs his robbery. Michel’s detachment is evident in all of his relationships. He avoids his sick mother, and when he finally visits her he lies to her. He lies to Jeanne, telling her he won’t leave Paris, and his friendship with Jacques is scarcely intimate. As far as we can see he’s non-conversant with his two criminal accomplices, who seem to be as withdrawn as he is. He is anything but open with the police inspector or, needless to say, with his victims.

Reflecting Michel’s narrow viewpoint, the cinematography limits the scope of view to his immediate environment. There are certainly no panoramas of Paris, nor even establishing shots to create a sense of place. On the other hand, sound effects in every scene carefully call attention to the exterior world that Michel is ignoring – the running horses, the traffic outside, the subway moving, the crowd in a café or train station. Bresson typically depicts the inner lives of single-minded characters, but every action in a Bresson film has an equal antithesis, and the insistent sound effects, which oppose the isolating effect of the visuals, will come into play later when they finally register on Michel.

Michel’s first robberies on the subway, imitating another pickpocket, use a newspaper to conceal his handiwork. A newspaper is a symbol of the outside world that Michel, like so many criminals, disdains in his self-absorption. The newspaper is like the objects Fontaine turns to unintended uses in A Man Escaped, except that Michel perverts the newspaper. Whereas Fontaine put everything in his reach – a safety pin, a spoon, a blanket, etc. – to a higher purpose, Michel turns the newspaper to a lower purpose.

Pickpocket - Robert Bresson - newspaper - subway

The four-minute montage of thefts in the Gare de Lyon is, ironically, the most fully realized picture of social harmony in Pickpocket. The wordless sequence is like an illustration of Rousseau’s ideally functioning society, a breathtaking display of cooperation that would form a utopian vision of a well oiled civilization if only it didn’t consist of crimes. It’s simultaneously a beautiful portrait of human potential and a bitter reminder that this potential is being wasted and perverted. As always, Bresson’s filmmaking is a method of inversion, showing positive qualities through their absence.

Jeanne’s first words to Michel foretell her destined role in his life. When he is unable to get into his sick mother’s flat, she approaches him in the stairway: “I have the key. I’ll open it for you.” She opens this door for him literally, as over the course of the movie she will figuratively open up the world that he has shut out. The photography and soundtrack of Pickpocket are filled with doors, and many scenes begin or end with someone opening or closing a door. These doors are metaphors for the separation between Michel and the outer world he is determined to shut out, but surprisingly they also expose his better instincts – he has a habit of leaving doors ajar behind him, as if he secretly wants the world to penetrate his shell and break his isolation. His chosen form of crime is a substitute for the sociability he’s missing – instead of meeting other people and getting to know them, he opens the doors to their purses, wallets, and pockets.

Pickpocket - Robert Bresson - Gare de Lyon

Pickpocket opens with a written text announcing that the movie is not a crime thriller. Clearly it is not a genre picture in the common fashion, but in a perverse way it is a romantic comedy – a comedy in the classical sense because of its happy ending, but also because it’s so full of irony, especially the strange path Michel takes to find his love. Just as the comedy is achieved without jokes, the romance is achieved without sentiment. Jeanne’s love is not hard to understand; she’s attracted to him because he’s so distant. He’s a challenge for her, and her emotional investment turns into love. The more revealing question is why Michel suddenly realizes he loves her at the end, after shutting her out again and again like everyone else who comes into his life.

The answer is on the soundtrack. When the guard brings him Jeanne’s letter he hears the approaching footsteps and stands up, hoping she has come to visit. At that moment he says his heart beat for her. Until now there’s been a tension between Michel’s confined field of vision, expressed in the photography, and the expansive field of sounds around him, as if the outside world had kept trying to penetrate him through sound. Finally, in the guard’s footsteps, the world reaches him. When he finds his emotions responding for the first time to the external world, he realizes he needs and loves Jeanne.

Pickpocket - Robert Bresson - Michel - prison - jail

Instead of making a moral judgment about stealing, Pickpocket aims to understand the nature of crime. Whereas a more ordinary movie would approach crime from a perspective of moral outrage or sociological analysis, Pickpocket immerses us in the world, the mindset, and even the body of a thief in order to uncover the root causes of crime and point the way to possible redemption. Ultimately, however, the movie is not only about social deviants; it calls on each of us to avoid the illusion of independence, and to welcome the people around us into our lives – not with defeated resignation but with joy, contributing our talents to a more harmonious society.


The Blood of a Poet – Protagonist’s journey out of a hermetic existence where doors represent a barrier to the outside world

Spellbound – Recurring images of doors representing a closed-off mental or social state

The Naked Jungle – Implied debate between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and another philosopher

A Man Escaped – Objects put to unintended use; story of redemption

Night Train – Symbolic use of newspapers

2001: A Space Odyssey – Story of pride driving a man to isolation / Story of isolation releasing a man from pride

L’argent – Profusion of doors; anti-social characters

Where Is My Friend’s Home? – Doors as a repeated motif with metaphorical significance

Matchstick Men – Thief who finds love and redemption at end; demonstration of technique; police in café

The Day He Arrives – Character who comes to realize he’s been shutting people out of his life