Civilization of Reality-manipulation vs. Civilization of Existential Mutuality With the Otherness of Reality

Culture is the rule, and art is the exception. Everybody speaks the rule: cigarette, computer, t-shirt, television, tourism, war. Nobody speaks the exception. It isn’t spoken, it is written: Flaubert, Dostoyevsky. It is composed: Gershwin, Mozart. It is painted: Cézanne, Vermeer. It is filmed: Antonioni, Vigo. Or it is lived, then it is the art of living: Srebrenica, Mostar, Sarajevo. The rule is to want the death of the exception. So the rule for cultural Europe is to organize the death of the art of living, which still flourishes.
(Jean-Luc Godard)

Encounter with the problem – Michel-the ambitious and masterful success-maker versus the enigmatic inspector

Seeing Michel in his poor room, sitting on his “minimal” bed we understand that he steals not for the sake of building his material prosperity. When he gets money he wastes it all on bouts of meaningless consumerism – on “cards and women”. But he feels euphoric when he is able to successfully manipulate the circumstances and the external reality in general. And in this he is congruent with the modern technological civilization and techno-scientific calculation.

In this shot we see Michel with his ascetically iconic face among the ghostly- and zombie-looking people populating the human civilization today. We see them on the streets and in the subways, in cars and on buses. We see them in the mirrors.

“Disagreement” between the reality-guard – “philosophical” police inspector from Dostoevsky, made by Bresson even more enigmatic than he was in the novel, and Michel (with his back to us – as if, he is hiding his face, but not his intentions: he is dedicated to the world – to his experimentation with the reality).

Glory of strategico-tactical calculations and masterful manipulation of reality (signified in the film by the pick-pocketing profession)

Michel, naturally, is masking his occupation and intentions, as all thieves and all those who try to manipulate reality to be successful in it, do. Isn’t technical science similar? While pretending to be the best friend of nature and reality in general (by delicately studying its body and soul) it’s scrupulously transforming it into a servant and slave.

Michel is preparing for invisible gentle strike

Michel already is unnoticeably realizing his goal

Woman’s purse as an attractive and adversary environment for its conqueror

Woman’s purse is not just an object for pickpocket’s curiosity. It is an intimate part of a prosperous woman’s being. To successfully conquer a woman’s purse means for Michel to erotico-creatively dominate the secrets of her very existence

To empty a woman’s purse for Michel is like for Western global corporations to extract precious metals from Third world countries

Michel is crawling toward his goal like a courtier in the queen’s chamber, like a Western diplomat during complicated negotiations with the leaders of the Eastern and Southern countries trying to exchange arms for fossil fuel, like a snake inside the mice burrow prepares to bite.

Michel dominates the woman’s purse like Western civilization – resources of planetary nature

Michel pilfers the banknotes from the woman’s handbag, as if, he sips their value through the skin of his fingers.

Man’s wallet as an adversarily attractive environment for its conqueror

Man’s wallet as an object of study

One man’s wallet is another man’s natural resource

A man’s wallet as an object of virtuoso business joggling

Man’s wallet as a high-tech flying object

Disinterested creativity added to business is a guarantee of success

Massive profits are going to the pockets of the global corporations, as if, by themselves, by their own dreams and will

World of love for otherness (of other people, of nature, reality, truth)

How to overcome the metal bars between human beings?

How to penetrate these metal bars of self-centeredness and self-enrichment mania?

How to find an alternative to masterful calculation and to mastery of domination?


Bresson’s film is not about life and destiny of the pickpocket trying to achieve success in perfecting his craft and eventually disappointed in his basic existential choices. “Pickpocket” is rather about the very direction of human civilization, that is personified by the main character (depicted with exceptional intelligence by Martin La Salle), who transformed his life into a philosophical experiment about how far it is possible to go in manipulating the circumstances and in controlling and using the human world.

To use Dostoevsky’s story as a basis for the concept of his film for Bresson was a metaphorical choice, a poetic inspiration. Dostoevsky was comparing conflicting individual worldviews, while Bresson critically represents the technocratic alternative to human civilization, dystopian future in action which, now in 21st century has becomes a full-fledged reality right before our eyes.

Bresson has made pickpocketing as a profession into a complicated signifier of a certain condition of our civilization. Behind Michel’s picking pockets we discern human ambition to master and out-compete one another, obsession with personal achievements and modern societies’ occupation with strategico-tactical thinking vis-a-vis life and reality. When we see the magnificent theater of slip of the hand, thievery on the screen represented as a virtuoso operation of manipulating the circumstances, the highest technical efficiency in subduing the very otherness of the world, in making it follow the master’s will – a rare person in the audience that will not feel the joy of a happy horror (happy because his/her soul will resonate with the glorious masterfulness of the hero, and horror because he/she will be, as if, caught in the secret desire to triumph over the world, to possess technical artistry rooted in the drive for power over reality).

During the scenes of glamorous theft which signify the glory of having power over reality and of masterful domination over the world – the very ethos of today’s society, Bresson shows the magic miracles of “high-tech“ professionalism performed by the human hands separated from human faces by the composition of shots. The point here is not that it is the brain behind the hands that does achieve these miracles but the fact that it is the human instrumental intelligence what is in charge – the one disconnected from the human psychological wholeness. Bresson here is in polemics with a flatly rational and superficially pragmatic view on the ultimate importance of human technical intelligence. This proud ideology of the human ability to invent and operate with tools and manipulate objects overrates the value of manipulative potentials of human psychology and underestimates the dangers of human paranoid predisposition towards otherness. What has really taken place in history is that the overuse of manipulative reason closed a lot of worthy possibilities for human race to live in peace and creativity with the otherness of the world. We killed too much and manipulated/calculated too much (and continue to do so in our happy righteousness) only to lose the ability to see with our native human eyes our possible self-annihilation in near future. Bresson’s Michel was able to re-discover the civilization we have already almost lost (based on love, not on calculation/ manipulation and self-assertion).

While Michel’s face is iconic in a non-sentimental sense, the most faces we see in “Pickpocket” – are not human at all. They are cardboard masks or, as if, made of plastic. The victims of Michel’s masterful craft of pick-pocketing are represented as either without faces (when composition of shots precludes faces from being seen) or with the ones without any traces of not even spirituality, but nobility or simple vitality. These people are victims of their own technical (fragmentary) minds – they are radically cut from their human (based on psychological wholeness) intelligence.

But who, indeed, is inspector (Jean Pelegri)? He is not like police detectives are represented in endless crime serials on TV and in movies in US and Europe. His goal is not necessary to catch Michel but rather to make him feel the ways of life alternative to the one he connected himself to.

The using thievery as a metaphor of our civilization’s obsession with masterfulness of manipulative domination over the reality by using technical intelligence not controlled by the human humanistic mind (soul) is a very bold, critically loaded and semantically a controversial stance on part of the director. But sublimated radicalism is the artistic credo of Bresson as much as Bergman, Godard, Bunuel, Kurosawa, Resnais, Pasolini, Antonioni or Mizoguchi.

Posted on Jan, 5 2016 –   “Pickpocket” (1959) by Robert Bresson by Acting-Out Politics