#335. Pickpocket

It’s easy to see how Robert Bresson could become one of the intellectual lighthouses for angsty young men, college-age or thereabouts, because although I did feel a weighty resonance with Diary of a Country Priest, his portrait of a spiritually conflicted young man who broods over a notebook, I think I was mostly moved by that movie because it’s one of the better portraits of a writer’s life I’ve ever seen on film (or of a writer’s internal life). It made me pensive and rang my bell—but nothing close to what it might’ve done if I’d discovered it at 19.

But then came A Man Escaped, which is probably a better movie in terms of pacing and plot and visual storytelling, second in suspense perhaps only to Wages of Fear, but mostly I fell in love with the way that A Man Escaped manages to be so brief and stylistically spare and unpretentious and also genuinely exciting—there’s something austere and cerebral about it, but…the austerity takes a backseat behind the story, and style and technique are employed in service of that story.

            Talking about it sresponance with angsty young men: A Man Escaped, like Country Priest, shows lots of footage of a smart young man in isolation, thinking his grim smart young existential thoughts, and now, at 29, it rings true to me because I definitely was that kid. But I’m not so glum anymore. So it looks more like an old photo of a familiar face, and less like a mirror.

            But now we’ve got Bresson’s angst young solitary man again, different face but same body, in Pickpocket and, same as those other two movies, this one is spare, and lean, and it’s broody and elegant and genuinely exciting in places…but it rubs me the wrong way. This story of a young man who lives in a garret and takes up a life of crime while pursuing a kind of awkward romance with a shy woman his own age is clearly an homage to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, whose main character Raskolnikov rubs me the wrong way too, having killed two women for reasons that become increasingly abstract as that novel goes on, and who—despite/because of his obnoxious braininess—is also intimately familiar because I was kinda like him as a 23-year-old too (my big radical stance back then was about the senselessness of familial obligations—an angry attitude I’ve outgrown.

            Bret Easton Ellis once said on a talk show, “Self-loathing is a really underrated quality, a lot more people need it,” which I think sounds way stronger than what he means; what I think he’s deriding there is the way that some people go about their business without much thought to the idea that they might be wrong. That’s a very pedestrian kind of annoying attribute—where I find it so insufferable is where it manifests in sensitive cerebral young men who believe that their stridency, their defiance of convention and manners, is a path to some great Truth. Like they’re seeing through the bullshit of the world and getting to the real core of things.

            They think that the mild-mannered comportment of their elders, that quiet dignity that comes with age, is a sign of narrow-minded complacency, or of surrender, and it never occurs to them that maybe these older people were once so full of piss as they themselves are at present—and they came to realize that it was pointless. That there’s nothing instructive or redemptive or enlightening about being angry all the time,and that the loneliness that they think is a byproduct of societal smothering is actually, more often than not, a byproduct of convincing themselves that they’re above it.

            Bit of a rant there. Maybe I’ve just traded my boyish anger for an adult one.

            But yes, look, Pickpocket is the story of a smart young loner who crosses paths with a more expert criminal who teaches him the craft of picking pockets, of casual theft, of getting up close to someone and wriggling yourself into their pocket and walking away with their hard-earned currency or their belongings.

            The metaphor here is one of a young man who gets close to people for the sole purpose of helping himself, and leaving them bankrupt afterward (not to mention hanted with feelings of violation and elf-blame, be it blame for allowing themselves to be robbed or blame for the mistaken impression of having misplaced their possessions). That metaphor isn’t brought down over our heads like a sugarglass pint, but it’s there to be had.

            It’s a movie about rape, violation, about learning (in a world that relentlessly takes things from you) to become the person who takes. But stealing from a thief in pursuit of some cosmic or philosophical balance seems like a fool’s notion, the ideal of an angry kid, and while Bresson might agree with me, given the fate he’s foisted on his protagonist, I’m not so comfortable with how he presents it here.

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