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Austere Perfectionism: The Films of Robert Bresson

Saturday, January 28, 2012
6:30 p.m. Pickpocket
Robert Bresson (France, 1959)

It is one of those consummate works of art which in one flash pales everything you have ever seen . . . an unmitigated masterpiece—Paul Schrader

Bresson liked to use untrained actors whose natural impassivity he harnessed to his own ends. The epiphany is Pickpocket, which in a watershed year in French cinema, 1959, was merely the most contemporary film ever made. A young recluse, Michel, drawn inexorably to picking pockets, suffers not guilt, but a kind of performance anxiety based on his Nietzschean theories of the superior man. Michel’s bewilderment as to his motivations is as thorough as ours, which is only one of the fascinating aspects of the film, obliquely but famously based on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Shot in the streets, cafes, and subways of Paris, it is a brilliant ballet of fingers, hands, glances, legs, watches, wallets, gazes from strangers indifferent or wary by turns. Everything is observable, isolated. In this way, Bresson ingeniously hones our eye to the director’s vision: while we imagine we are seeing through the eyes of the character, we instead look into his soul.

—Judy Bloch

• Written by Bresson. Photographed by Léonce-Henry Burel. With Martin Lasalle, Marika Green, Pierre Leymarie, Jean Pelegri. (75 mins, In French with English subtitles, B&W, 35mm, From Janus Films/Criterion Pictures)