In the clips above, Paul Schrader, (whose Taxi Driver screenplay was recently and brilliantly analyzed by Miriam Paschal) gives us a very concise and excellent breakdown of Robert Bresson’s 1959 classic - Pickpocket. Very loosely based on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Pickpocket tells the story of a young, directionless man, Michel (Martin LaSalle), who briefly finds a sense of quiet solace and accomplishment leading a life of petty crime. Michel becomes hunted and continually tracked, questioned, and challenged by the father figure/police detective in charge of his case (Jean Pélégri).
I share these clips because Schrader’s analysis would make any screenwriter uneasy. Bresson, like Robert Altman, built a career on defying every single cinematic and storytelling convention. And some believe he struck gold with Pickpocket.
What are we, as screenwriters, to think of men like Bresson and Altman? Should they be adored or condemned?
In short, I have five thoughts: A) only Bresson can be Bresson, B) you have to master the rules first before deciding if and when you should break them (Bergman, Fellini, Godard, Altman all spent YEARS working mainstream and mastering stories in the classical form before they ventured into other territories like antiplots), C) you better have a damn good reason for breaking a rule, D) this type of storytelling can only be told outside the studio system, and E) Bresson, Altman, like so many other great filmmakers are worthy of being studied on our own. We shouldn’t rely on screenwriting gurus alone to learn about the fine art of cinematic storytelling.
Coincidentally, in the latest issue of Offscreen magazine, there’s a new article in which Donato Totaro compares Bresson’s Pickpocket to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, oddly enough. I loved what Donato wrote about the transitions, hallways, and doors:
“…the film’s extensive use of pathways, portals and transitional spaces (staircases, corridors, doors, train platforms, elevators) are suggestive of the several life choices ahead for Michel, who appears indecisive in making them. Throughout the film we see Michel enter and exit numerous doors and, more tellingly, leave doors unlocked, ajar, or open. Not only do the doors and corridors symbolize Michel’s possible pathways in life, but his perplexing (and unrealistic) habit of leaving his apartment door ajar when he leaves for the day can only be made sense of in a metaphorical manner: a symbolic (or unconscious) fear of closing off possible life choices.”
Strictly Film School wrote:
“Similar to A Man Escaped, Bresson uses the recurring imagery of hands in Pickpocket exercising his fingers for dexterity, practicing scenarios for deception, executing the theft. However, in contrast to Fontaine's hands which serve as an instrument of his intellect, Michel's hands represent a moral fracture within his soul. In essence, his compulsion is a subconscious disconnection of his mind from his body, a separation between his ambitious, theoretical ideas, and his common, unremarkable existence. His attraction to a life of crime is a reflection of his psychological fear of failure - his inability to achieve his perceived potential - a suppressed realization that he is not the "extraordinary man" that he believes himself to be. In the end, we see a humbled Michel, enheartened by a long-awaited visit from Jeanne. As Jeanne kisses his hands, Michel is redeemed from his past transgressions, with a renewed faith and the love of a devoted woman.”
Girish on Robert Bresson
“What I probably love best about Bresson is that for me, his films are projective surfaces. We don’t want a film to give us, all tied up with ribbons and bows, pre-digested and completely determined, an experience that does not include us or ask anything of us. An artwork should provide a place for the viewer to project herself into it, constructing meaning in a process of collaboration with the artist. (E.H. Gombrich in Art and Illusion calls this the “beholder’s share” of the aesthetic experience.) Bresson creates this projective surface, for one, by means of an aesthetic of withholding. He creates absences which draw us into the work; we find ourselves filling these absences for ourselves by projection.”
“For many, a Bresson film is a punishing experience thanks to the alleged ‘severity' of his style and the bleakness of his narratives. I have heard viewers claim that while they were moved by some of his films, it was despite the style not because of it. Yet the frugality of that style—exactness of framing and editing, elimination of excess—has undeniably influenced a slew of contemporary European filmmakers, including Chantal Akerman, Olivier Assayas, Laurent Cantet, Claire Denis, Bruno Dumont, Eugene Green, Michael Haneke, Benoit Jacquot, and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, whose most recent film, L'Enfant, is yet another variation of Bresson's Pickpocket, among others—although none of these reject actors and expressive performances. Still, the adjective ‘Bressonian,' no less than ‘Hitchcockian,' is misused and overused. In the end, both filmmakers are inimitable because their styles are inseparable from a stern moral vision. Hitchcock distilled it with humor, a substantial dash of entertainment, and, of course, stars. Bresson, as uncompromising as his filmic style, offered it straight up: no ice and no water on the side.”
Films of Robert Bresson from Bright Lights Film Journal
Robert Bresson Page from Senses of Cinema
EuroScreenwriters’ Robert Bresson Film Archive