Monday, February 23, 2009

The Great Movies: "Pickpocket"

Robert Bresson, 1956

Anyone who actually reads these reviews has probably figured out by now that I am not crazy about stylized acting. Plots and scenarios can be completely over the top, but when characters don't act like real, recognizable humans, it makes me kind of crazy. This is, now that I think about it, why I have trouble with so many comedies and action movies, where the necessity of laffs and thrills precludes people acting like people.

I ran into trouble, a few weeks ago, with the early-century over-the-top expressionism of Metropolis and Night of the Hunter. This week, I once again run hard up against a mid-century European film, and as usual my complaint is this: the characters don't show any emotion at all. This was, I have read, an intentional effect, so it is impossible to say whether the cast of movies like Pickpocket were good or bad actors. It is certain, though, that they would have made awesome poker players.

In addition to lowering the emotional volume to near imperceptible levels, this lack of emoting is confusing. There is a love interest in Pickpocket, but it took me until almost the end of the movie to realize this. Since they never look at each other with anything but a blank expression, it's a little hard to decode (or for that matter, understand) their attraction to each other.

Apparently, Bresson was motivated by a strong Christian spirituality. His intention was to film generic people in situations under an impassive gaze, leaving us the audience to meditate on the morality or immorality of their actions. Sounds like a neat idea, in theory. In practice? Kinda boring.

Plot: Ostensibly, the confessions of a pickpocket. We see him learn and ply his trade. He has relationships with other characters -- his mother, the alleged love interest, a police detective, accomplices -- but they are all conducted with a stunted emotional affect that you might expect from a survivor of brain trauma. There are four years of the character's life that sound like they were probably pretty interesting, but they are covered in a ten-second voiceover.

Visuals: Since Bresson wants our meditative moral gaze to fall on his characters, we spend a lot of time just staring at them through a stationary camera. Some of the actual pickpocketing scenes are pretty cool, as you see the thieves work a street or a train with a kind of smooth ballet of petty crime. Others, though, have the wooden aspect of a period training film.

Dialogue: Not very much, not very interesting. Lots of first-person past-tense voiceover.

Prognosis: This one is strictly for history-of-film buffs.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps it's time to can your list and get some better recommendations. You need to get some pleasure out of this at some point.

Michael5000 said...

I get plenty of pleasure out of this! Even if I don't enjoy specific movies as works of art or entertainment, I enjoy learning about the history of film and getting all the insights into cultural history that watching these oldies have on offer.

Also, I'm more than halfway through the list, and the guaranteed good stuff -- the movies I've seen before but will rewatch for this project -- are still in the future.