Above all, cinema is a style. Movies are a glorious and exciting exploration of the human condition, but without style, the images hang to the screen, failing to be anything more than a light flickering on a blank canvas.

That’s why those who crack the code are so lauded, and few have been as voraciously lauded as the French director, Robert Bresson (1901-1999). Though he only made 13 features over the course of four decades, every one of his films bears a signature style—the mark of a master—but none convey his ideas quite like his 1959 masterpiece, Pickpocket.

“I would like in my films to be able to render perceptible to an audience a feeling of a man’s soul and also the presence of something superior to man which can be called God.”

Robert Bresson

The story goes that Bresson saw Samuel Fuller’s Pickup On South Street (1953) and was struck with the idea of a man picking the pockets of others and finding himself. This bit of trivia is notable considering that Pickpocket was Bresson’s first script not adapted from a previous work. Yet, viewers won’t have to strain hard to find strands of Fuller’s movie as well as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The pickpocket of the title, Michel (Martin La Salle), is an aimless, amoral man with a blank Byzantine stare. Michel identifies with Nietzsche’s idea of the superman and tries to embody that idea through the act of pickpocketing, something that provides him sexual ecstasy more than it does financial stability. However, that is what Pickpocket is, not what Pickpocket is about. Michel is a man searching for his soul, but it is a search he isn’t aware of. At the start of the movie, Michel doesn’t realize that anything is missing—and Bresson doesn’t tip his hand that it is—but everything in Michel’s world and everything about Pickpocket is slightly off. It is only at the conclusion that the audience is aware of this disjunction. That’s because Bresson handles Michel’s incompleteness entirely through style. He refrains from close-ups of the face (emotion), focusing instead on the hands (action). He lets shots linger longer than they should and incorporates bursts of music (John Caspar Ferdinand Fischer’s “Overture in G minor, Op. 1, No. 7”). He provides Michel with voice-overs that are contrapuntal to the image and moves the camera in a manner that is rarely in sync with Michel or the music.

Marika Green and Martin La Salle in Pickpocket. Images courtesy The Criterion Collection.

All of this is by design, and only through multiple viewings does it become clear. Bresson is showing us is that the lack of Michel’s soul has disrupted the mechanics of the movie. It is only when, in the movie’s closing image, that Michel realizes what is missing. With this realization, Bresson offers Michel salvation, and the emotion of the scene finally aligns picture and sound.

It is a powerful scene, and Bresson follows in Dante’s footsteps by replacing Christ with Beatrice (here Jeanne played by Marika Green) to offer his hero, fallen from grace, a moment of redemption. Writing in his book, Notes on the Cinematograph, Bresson offers up the trick he has been building to: “The most ordinary word, when put into place, suddenly acquires brilliance. That is the brilliance with which your images must shine.”

It’s a remarkable feat made all the more remarkable by Bresson’s ability to deliver his message in a lean 75 minutes. With Pickpocket, Bresson carves away the excess and leaves only what is essential. From there, Bresson burrows deeper still, burying the idea well beneath the surface, daring the audience to go looking for it. Fifty plus years later, we are still looking. There is plenty more to be found.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Pickpocket (1959)
Written and directed by Robert Bresson
Produced by Agnès Delahaie
Starring: Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, Jean Pélégri, Dolly Scal, Pierre Leymarie, Kassagi, Pierre Étaix, César Gattegno
New Yorker Films, Not rated, Running time 76 minutes, Opened Dec. 16, 1959.

A version of the above review first appeared at the TCM Movie Morlocks website. May it never be forgotten.