The above video is taken from Paul Schrader’s excellent introduction to the Criterion Collection edition of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket: ‘the most influential film in my creative life’.
Bresson’s consummate tale of crime and redemption follows Michel, a lonely young pickpocket whose days are spent working the streets, metros and train stations of Paris. His devotion to the art of pickpocketing becomes a compulsion. As his obsession grows he experiences fear, elation, a world of feeling. He takes lessons from a master and works with a criminal gang. This underworld milieux brings him into contact with his interlocutor and confessor, a police detective who resolves to apprehend him.
Schrader draws intriguing parallels between the character of Michel in Pickpocket and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, tracing Bresson’s film back to Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (Bresson’s inspiration for the film) and how the idea of a ‘soul in transit’ then became the inspiration for the screenplay of Taxi Driver.
Schrader first saw Pickpocket in Los Angeles in 1969, ten years after it was made, and wrote a celebrated two-part review which he later refined in his seminal book Transcendental Style in Film.
Schrader calls Bresson a ‘perverse’ director, in that Bresson’s style works in ways that run counter to traditional narrative filmmaking. Instead of adding elements and flourishes to underscore the story, Bresson strips things away, leaving the audience off-balance, paring the story down to its fundamental aspects. Bresson uses a rigid and austere style to ward off superficial emotional responses, intent instead on creating a ‘transformation’ – from the material to the spiritual realm. For Bresson this transition is key: ‘There must, at a certain moment, be a transformation; if not, there is no art.’