The Structure of Fate

The protagonist of all Bresson’s films are isolated from the world, and are one way or another held “incommunicado”. They suffer deeply almost constantly. Their path, literally described, is asceticism, even martyrdom. They struggle against this vocation, to not recognize it, even as they deviously, necessarily, fulfill it. (The Lord works in mysterious ways.) And finally, fully, they realize their fate.

The purest and most direct example of this process is Pickpocket, and the most unlikely and ironic of Bresson’s spiritual strivers is the criminal Michel. The Pickpocket as spiritual hero is really quite sensible, since for Bresson the spiritual (consciousness) has no direct relationship to the moral (law, custom); nowhere in his work is this distinction made so plain.

Ostensibly, superficially, Pickpocket follows convention closely enough. Michel is a young man dedicated to a life of crime because, like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, he believes he is being superior to law. His criminal aspiration cuts him off from love—from his mother and the girl Jeanne. The death of his mother does not make him relent. He does well, but of course inevitably his luck runs out, he must flee. He returns years later, when things have “cooled off”, finds Jeanne, and tries to “go straight” for her sake. However, he relapses into crime, and of course is caught. At last he truly repents, when Jeanne visits him in prison. On this level, the film has a traditional crime and punishment theme, and this is precisely what Bresson undercuts at every moment. He undercuts all traditional associations and expectations of story and character: of story, through ellipsis; of character, through style of acting.

The plot unfolds rigorously, that is, with no event gradually, convincingly “developed”. Things just happen without “transition”. Thus there is no way to follow the “story”. The viewer is in a position only to accept what happens as chance, or fate. Bresson’s ellipsis is virtually epitomized when, after seeing Michel’s train leave, we are simply told that he spent two years in London and is returning to Paris. Those two years, like so many minutes, hours, and days before, are absolutely closed to us, open to imagination. This is the paradox of Bressonian ellipsis: what is left out can be filled in in many ways, but all ways lead to the same end. Chance is fate, or becomes so in man, who shapes all, no matter what happens, in his spirit. The relationship of Jeanne, Michel, and Jacques is ambiguous, even to the father of Jeanne’s child. The story of the money stolen from Michel’s mother is equivocal in the extreme, so somehow the identity of the thief remains uncertain after all. What the Inspector really knows or intends is always obscure enough. But what is left out does not change what is there, and lack of explanation both leaves questions forever open and closes off all real questioning. If no answers are given, no hope of any is given either. This is not obfuscation, it is a clear vision of fatality, how things happen whether they are understood or not, and a vision of spirituality, how what happens in the world does not matter so much as what happens in the mind.

Indeed we are very much (very subtly) in the mind of the protagonist. Again, this is a function of ellipsis, because we never are anywhere outside the presence of Michel; we never know more than he knows, or experience anything but what he undergoes. (This is almost but not quite the case in Bresson’s other “first-person” films, with the exception of Un condamné à mort s’est échappé, the one directly before Pickpocket and thematically most similar.) And although Bresson’s reputation for austerity is deserved, it should not mislead one into thinking he is “objective”. In Pickpocket at least, the viewer is made to identify directly with the protagonist, both perceptually and emotionally. The shock of recognition Michel feels on first seeing the baby is exactly our experience. His tension before committing crime, his relief after, are made ours. His exultation in “the achieve of it”, the mastery of larcenous craft, the miracles of dexterity, are absolutely shared with us, climaxing in the prodigies of the railroad station. We really understand what he is about, from the inside out. Through the sheer shared experience of the moment we know what no explanation could convey. Indeed the ambiguous explanations of how or why things might have come to pass are virtual travesties of “exposition”. The ideological discussions with the Inspector are treated as superficial, their philosophical content given the most cursory glance, because what is really going on is beneath the words and ideas. So all abstraction of experience or thought exists insubstantially, in counterpoint to the keen reality of the moment. Bressonian ellipsis abstracts the abstract to virtual absurdity, and abstracts the concrete, the immediate to its essential power.

Character is rendered the same way as plot. As event is intensified by focussing with austere selectivity upon moments, personality is captured by seizing exclusively upon the vital passion. Pickpocket is the passion of Michel, as all Bresson’s films are passions. We detect nothing in Michel’s expression or gesture except that he is not “all there”, that he is “absent”, somewhere else, in the grip of a passion, obsession, compulsion that excludes him from normal life. He comes to life picking pockets. But this too is an act performed remotely, as if he were in the grip of an irresistible force. That hidden, revealed force is what counts. The act in itself is not what matters, any more than the word. Reality lies beneath. Thus action corresponds to a deeper process, and acting indicates a state of soul that cannot be overtly shown. So action is ritual, a series of happenings designed to manifest truth, but in themselves not fully “life”. And acting is ritual, a stylization of behavior which reveals the self, but in itself not “realistic” or “credible”.

Michel acts as one possessed. His expressionless face puts no limit on his passion. All others are caught up in his struggle, all are fatally drawn to him. Jeanne, the Inspector, the Pickpocket, all appear as Michel needs them, to serve the force which drives him. Again, chance is fate. And all act as Michel does, more removed from the power, but still compelled. They try to speak for themselves, for legality, morality, domesticity, industry, but always they are really speaking in Michel’s terms. Always they speak to the need of his soul. Always, indeterminately conscious of their function, they help to take him further on his way.

This way is “religious”; Bresson pulls no punches. He informs us at the very start that this is the story of two souls who find each other, and the sacred music of Lully which accompanies this bald statement recurs during a few unclimactic, almost transitional passages in the film, as if to imply that the most ordinary event is as charged with “religious” significance as the most dramatic. For Bresson religion is truly a way of life. The man in quest of spiritual fulfillment is fanatical, has little room for any other concern. (In Un condamné à mort s’est échappé the hero literally masters himself, acquires his discipline, in order to save his life.) So Michel neglects his ailing mother, seems indifferent to Jeanne—at which we must recall the attitudes of all saints and more than saints to family and sexual relations. Michel lives in fact like a monk, in a bare little room (reminiscent of the prison cells in Un condamné à mort s’est échappé and Le Procès de Jeanne d’Arc), seldom going out. In the room he practices his discipline, picking pockets, then ventures out to test his knowledge in the world and returns to medidate upon his fearful and ecstatic experiences. (We know the fear and the ecstasy first-hand, Bresson has given them to us). As for the joys of the world outside, they are expressed for Michel in one brief passage. This is when he accompanies Jeanne and Jacques to the amusement park (a place in which Mouchette in a later film experiences her only joy). But when his two companions go off to the entertainments, Michel remains seated. Behind him in the café windows is the reflection of one of the rides, all we ever see of earthly “pleasure”, its ghost. Nor can he remain and watch these fleeting frivolities. A watch has caught his attention, he must be off about his business. (Here occurs a radical ellipsis. The whole time Jeanne and Jacques are on the ride is expressed in a single dissolve—from Michel’s teacup as he leaves it on the table to the same cup from a slightly different angle as his friends return. Nowhere in cinema has time, its passage, been more cogently abstracted.) Everywhere and constantly Michel is driven to practice his vocation, although in the amusement park, as in the subway and at the racetrack and in the train station, he has the narrowest of escapes. Nothing will scare Michel off, nothing can stop him short of being arrested.

And after all, finally, Michel is caught. This is his fulfillment. What a long, hard, devious path he took to get caught. Of course, is what not enough to master himself as criminal; he then had to pay the price of guilt. Or so it superficially seems. But that is not what getting caught means at all. That is closer to the meaning of Pickpocket’s prototype, to which Bresson is remarkable faithful. Both Raskolnikov and Michel are young students. They share “superman” theories, which they discuss with a Police Inspector who suspects them. They are both redeemed by the love of a poor girl, give themselves up (or away), and at the end go to prison. In addition, the specific crime of Raskolnikov, killing an old woman for money, is strangely echoed in the shadowy tale of how Michel apparently stole from his mother.

Michel’s sin is not clumsy and repulsive like Raskolnikov’s blundering crime. The Pickpocket’s crime is a marvel of skill, fascinating, wonderful. It is literally an achievement full of grace, but for absolute grace more is needed. Raskolnikov’s crime needed repentance. Michel’s requires something else. In both cases, the crime is necessary, a step toward realizing who they really there. In both cases, there is uncertainty as to identity.

Raskolnikov’s elitist theory is a desperate overcompensation for emptiness, a frantic “idea”; Michel’s is not even that. He himself knows from the start that he just must pick pockets. His theories hardly interest him, they are merest rational, and, above all, they provide him witn an oblique means of discussing his career with the Inspector. They both know what they are really talking about—and it is not theory but practice. Michel’s need to communicate goes further when he later discusses the art of theft with the Inspector, examining tools of the trade in the police station, and displaying his classic treatise on pocket-picking. So he shares with Raskolnikov an urge to confess. But again, his crime does not so require atonement. What lures Michel is the urge to communicate, to objevtify his experience. Michel is coming face to face with life, and with himself.

When we first encounter him, he is a lost soul, isolated from his fellow man, obeying a compulsion toward crime. This compulsion is indeed toward his salvation. Only through the extreme of crime does he learn to experience life in all its intensity. Only through the drama of crime does he manage to confront truly, have dialogue, communicate with those he needs on a level of passion rather than convention. Only through the violence of crime does he break through his old self, not, as far as we can judge, a very pleasant self-sufficiently desperate to steal perhaps from his own mother. Only through the discipline of crime can he make concrete and conscious his obscure needs and dark impulses.

But the life of the Pickpocket is not complete, nor is Bresson so simple. Michel’s monastic austerity is also flight from life. He has withdrawn to struggle, but the struggle is never enough. Picking pockets is merely a means, he must overcome even this compulsion. Cut off from society, he finds its representative in the Inspector, who goes so far as to pay him an unofficial visit. The Inspector plays confessor to Michel, and also represents the common values and virtues of society. What he precisely does is to puncture constantly Michel’s pretensions, deflate whatever is puffed-up in his self-image as master criminal, counterpoint the Pickpocket’s secret elation with a thoroughly “ordinary”, “official” point of view. But the Inspector is a model of indirection. He never lectures, never even really suggests what to do. His role is something of confessor, something of psychotherapist. The Inspector’s presence is a solid reality from which Michel can get his bearings. His presence is the affirmation of a real world which exists outside the little room.

The progress of the film is Michel’s pilgrimage to that world. But first he must realize himself in the underworld. His initiation into the mysteries of picking pockets is a curiously ambiguous episode. He is for no apparent reason “picked up” by a man in the street, and they end up in the men’s room of a restaurant. The (homo) sexuality implicit in this situation then climaxes in a little orgy of digital manipulation of wallet and pocket. As Michel has rejected society, so has he denied sexuality, and his criminal gratification is clearly, among other things, a substitute for direct sexual activity. So Bresson makes clear what Michel’s life has become, by alluding to sexual deviation as a symbol of its secrecy and incompleteness.

Michel refuses to face his real life. Knowing his mother wants to see him, he avoids her. She binds him to reality. Knowing Jeanne cares for him, he leaves her to his most convenient friend Jacques. But of course he is bound to be caught, pretty well knows it, pretty much encourages it. He hides his loot as the hero of Un condamné à mort s’est échappé hid his tools, in the wall, but trained searchers could find it. Still, this is no dead give-away. That virtual confession, like everything else, is very twisty.

When Michel’s mother dies, this is a shock of reality. One inevitability has caught up. And Michel’s relationship with Jeanne is clarified. Previously, she met him as his mother’s companion and nurse. Now they must meet on different terms. Now Jeanne is the only woman in his life. So the death of the mother takes on an archetypal overtone of reaching a new stage of sexuality, of psychological maturity. Michel continues to struggle against this too. Entering new life is painful. A cup of plenty if before him, but he cries that the cup be taken from him. Yet it is his fate. Within him is the unconquerable drive to drink life fully. His constant wavering, resistence and yielding to his fate, is expressed in Pickpocket’s recurrent motif: the door either closed or open or left slightly ajar. What Michel does with the door of his room, of his mother’s, of Jeanne’s, of the Inspector’s office, and finally of the train as he leaves Paris, his slamming, opening, locking of it, all indicate psychological states, attitudes at that moment toward his fate. The function of the door suggests Michel’s own openness or closedness to life, and, further, suggests to what extent he is being final or tentative, making decisions or avoiding them, being responsible or leaving a way out.

The only way out becomes clear in a shock of recognition when at the scene of his supreme crime he sees suddenly, as in a final vision, his accomplices apprehended by the police. His turning-away from this sight is to escape being seen and perhaps also to escape the sight of his own destiny. He runs from his very life, from his whole life, as far as another country, as long as two years.

In Englang, we are told, Michel dissipated his ill-gotten gains in gambling and women, and returned to France. Of course this dissipation, this “living it up” is totally uncharecteristic of the man we have seen. Clearly it represents an escape on the one hand, and on the other a flagrant outbreak of repressed desires. But these excesses have also wiped out all that materially remained of Michel’s former life of crime, leaving him with a “clean slate” and at the same time rendering him penniless in his exile, more or less forcing his return to France. Again fate is inextricable from spiritual urge.

Michel returns to the scenes of his crimes, to the area of his responsibility. Inevitably he is back at Jeanne’s door, and enters to see—mysterious apparition—an infant. The story of Jeanne’s abandonment by her alcoholic father and rejection of Jacques comes out. Jacques has disappeared (poetically just—he has fulfilled his function in the essential process). Jeanne’s reason for rejecting him is clear. About her whole apartment, with the half-open door, the child in the midst of empty space, there is an atmosphere of incompleteness and expectancy. It al has been waiting for Michel, and of course he has come. He recognizes his fate, swears to reform, and proceeds to do so. Still, we cannot quite believe it, nor can he. The test is not yet conclusive. Michel is still too free, too undetermined. He wonders that the police have not bothered him. He has been permitted to “get away with it”. His past crimes are “unpaid for”, and he remains the “perfect criminal”. So Michel’s identity, as reliable wage-earner and supporter of woman and child is compromised by another image still strong in his mind, that of master thief. And the escape from the solid world and its responsibilities is still a possibility, a potential that must, once and for all, be made impossible.

Michel again “succumbs to the temptation” of crime. But here he is practically conscious that really he is doing something else. The detective who tempts him seems suspicious; at the race-track his fat roll of bills contradicts his losing bets. Nevertheless, Michel bites. And he is finally caught. This last fling at crime was like all others a move toward getting captured, but the final move. It was never time before; before he was always let go. Now it is time, and Michel has himself assured that there will be no escape.

The rapture of perfect pocket-picking at the railway station was succeeded by the capture of his cohorts in the same place, witnessed by Michel, and just barely escaped. The time and place were not quite right, and he was not quite ready. So Michel chooses to the caught where he first began his career, at the racetrack. His downfall is certain and ritualistic. He unprofessionally, deliberately, takes an awful chance. He offers his wrist, bent at a helpless angle behind him, to the police. Throughout, we have seen such offerings, such symbolic communications. Michel has been handed money by Jacques, criminal instruments by the Inspector, wallets by his fellow pickers; he has handed them wallets and watches, and given his book to the Inspector, and the watch to Jeanne. Finally he gives his hand, and himself completely, to the law.

Still he struggles, but it is faint resistance, the reflexive continuation of his former defenses, which he no longer needs in his new state of awareness. His initial rebuff of Jeanne is the last gasp and final purging of his escapist tendencies. When she is gone he realizes that at last he is ready to face life. He is impatient for her return, eager, for the first time, for another human being. His need for her is dramatized by doubt of her return. Her letter, another crucial object handed to him, communicates what after all he knew, her own complete commitment. The letter makes him absolutely ready.

So Jeanne’s arrival at the prison is the first completely anticipated event in Pickpocket. The realm of certainty has been entered. The clanging of the prison doors is final. There is no escape. Michel meets face to face with Jeanne, life, his fate. And Michel utters a line of final confirmation: “What a strange way I traveled, Jeanne, to find you at last”. Strange words, since the lovers are separated by an iron grille, and will be separated for some time. But the separation of their bodies just indicates how the original statement has come true: two souls have found each other. Michel barely touches Jeanne’s face through the grille-work. The supremely dextrous hand has become an instrument of love. And this first human touch in the film indicates that the fanatical quest is over. Michel did touch his mother once, but only through a barrier that never again could be crossed—her death; this benedictory but elegiac gesture now finally becomes transfigured and fulfilled in a sacrament of promise. The passion has become love. The repressed life-force is conscious. Michel recognizes reality. He is no longer driven to his fate, he is responsible for it. The Pickpocket has become a man.

In P. Adams Sitney (ed.), The Essential Cinema: Essays on the Films in the Collection of Anthology Film Archives (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1975), pp. 208-215.