Aug 31, 2005 at 12:00 am

“This film is not a thriller,” states the written prologue to Robert Bresson’s 1959 French film Pickpocket, and anyone familiar with the late director’s relatively small but singular body of work will have to smile at that unnecessary assertion.

Bresson, who died in 1999 at age 90, spent his long directorial career pruning his movies of “thrills” along with any emotive acting, dramatic gestures and the pleasurably familiar clichés of conventional film. He used nonactors (he preferred to call them “models”) who recite their lines flatly, and he introduced tragic plot twists in a matter-of-fact manner. The director sought to avoid theatrical artifice, and his films can seem cold and distant. They can also be hypnotic and profound.

Pickpocket is the story of Michel (Martin LaSalle), a young writer living in poverty who enters a life of crime out of frustration and hubris. He sees himself as an exceptional being exempt from society’s codes, someone above the law by dint of his “genius” and “talent” (we have to take his word for this, since neither quality is evident).

The parallel here to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment becomes obvious when the young pickpocket initiates a relationship with the cop who’s been keeping a suspicious eye on him. Michel engages the officer in conversations about his superman theory, feeling both invulnerable and, for reasons revealed later in the story, guilty enough to want to be caught.

But he seems to feel little else. He’s oblivious to the attentions of Jeanne (Marika Green), who serves as a liaison between Michel and his sick mother. When asked if he believes in anything, he says, “I believe in God ... for three minutes,” apparently a reference to how long it takes him to approach and fleece a victim. Picking pockets is more a matter of luck than skill, he says — which isn’t entirely true, but the luck part gives his life a buzz of temporary meaning.

All this builds up to one of Bresson’s typical epiphanic endings, and if you can adapt to his idiosyncratic style and pacing it can be extraordinarily moving. The most arresting aspect of the film, the parts that even those resistant to Bresson’s approach should appreciate, are the pickpocket montages; these sequences show Michel and his confederates stripping watches and wallets from unsuspecting victims with a dazzling combination of ingenuity and grace. Greater rewards await those who can enter Bresson’s world, but you have to patiently go to him — he has no intention of coming to you.


French with English subtitles. The Detroit Film Theatre inside the DIA (5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237). 7:30 p.m., Monday, Sept. 5.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].