Criterion Sunday 314: Pickpocket (1959)

This film certainly trades in all of Bresson’s hallmarks — the austere settings, frontal framing of his protagonists, their solid, even slightly wooden, acting style, casting their eyes to the ground as they deliver their laconic lines — and so anyone who gets on with his work will find plenty to like here, in what Bresson is very clear to point out is not a policier/thriller in the opening titles. That said, it has a grim determination to the way it unfolds, as our antihero Michel (Martin LaSalle) takes up a life of pickpocketing in lieu of honest work. If Bresson casts judgement on Michel, it’s not necessarily about his choice of lifestyle, as about the lack of attention he shows his relatives (like his dying mother, from whom he steals) of friends, and about how this seems to be rooted in a deep-seated rejection of Christian values. He’s a young man, clearly well-read, who fancies himself as smarter than those around him, and can thus be seen in a lineage with plenty of other filmic anti-heroes. Still, like all his protagonists, Bresson sees in him a path of redemption, and that’s what the plot of the film is, really, as he moves through criminality towards his redemption, embodied in the figure of Jeanne (Marika Green). This isn’t my favourite of Bresson’s works but it’s certainly interesting when looked at in the context of the other (more youthful) filmmaking taking place in Paris in 1959.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is probably filmmaker and famous cinematographer Babette Mangolte’s 52-minute documentary Les Modèles de ‘Pickpocket’ (2004). From doing a cursory search on the internet (specifically, on Babette Mangolte’s own website) it appears there is an 89-minute version of this film, although the 52-minute one attached as an extra to this Criterion edition doesn’t appear to be in need of any extra footage. Unlike most of these kinds of documentaries, it takes the form of a personal essay film, in which Mangolte encounters by chance at a party Pierre Leymarie, now a scientist on the verge of retiring, but known to her as one of the supporting actors in Bresson’s 1959 film, made 45 years earlier. She speaks to him, then tracks down Marika Green (who was only 16 when she made the film) in Austria, and the film’s star Martin LaSalle who’s living in Uruguay and barely ever even speaks French anymore (we hear him chatting in Spanish to Mangolte’s assistant). Each of them offer their own ideas about Bresson’s art, and of course all are quite different from how they were in the film — just their smiles and warmth make it clear to what extent they were in fact acting in Bresson’s film. It becomes clear that everyone glance and affect seen on screen was down to Bresson’s fastidious manipulation, and they put across various ideas as to what he was trying to achieve. Green reflects on how none of Bresson’s “models” really know one another, each monastically clinging to their own version of the master, and perhaps the love of Bresson is a deeply individual one after all.
  • There’s a six-minute clip of a French TV interview with Bresson from 1960, in which he discusses the film and his vision for it, how the idea came to him and some of what he was trying to put across in film, stuttered out under the glare of the two interviewers.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert Bresson; Cinematographer Léonce-Henri Burel; Starring Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, Pierre Leymarie; Length 76 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Monday 18 June 2001 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Friday 8 May 2020).

The Gold Diggers (1983)

I’ve been reading B. Ruby Rich’s memoirs and essay collection from her time in the 1970s and 1980s as a feminist film critic (Chick Flicks) and as she discusses Sally Potter’s breakthrough film work, I thought it timely to watch her first feature, much though I’ve had the DVD on my shelves for the past five years. It wasn’t exactly a success at the time, and looking at it you can understand why: it defiantly avoids anything commercial or saleable. It’s a deeply impenetrable film with a dissociative editing style that seems to hint at many issues and flirt with many different genres, to the extent that it’s generically unclassifiable. Comments on the packaging call it a sci-fi musical, though it doesn’t have any song setpieces and it’s sci-fi to extent of making our world seem alien. You could add in period drama to the mix pretty easily (the Icelandic landscapes and scenes of panning for gold, along with some ballroom costume sequences), but perhaps it could be called a psychodrama of identity, and what it means to be a woman within the recursive forms of filmed illusionism. I mean, perhaps? I don’t even know for sure, but I do know that I’ll need to watch it again to get some sense. In the meantime, for those looking at it but not following along easily (as I was), it’s a gorgeous film to look at, with some of the most spectacular black-and-white images from any film, thanks to its cinematographer (and Chantal Akerman collaborator) Babette Mangolte.

CREDITS
Director Sally Potter; Writers Lindsay Cooper, Rose English and Potter; Cinematographer Babette Mangolte; Starring Julie Christie, Colette Laffont; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 19 August 2015.

News from Home (1977)

This series is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. As ever, you’ll notice my dust-gathering DVD collection includes a lot more European arthouse films. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.


It’s difficult to put into words what’s ultimately affecting about this rather experimental film of the late-1970s, which I can only imagine would be even more affecting to a New Yorker or one who knows the city better. But to me, it’s like an updated city symphony film — those distinctly utopian 1920s visions of the city’s enthralling power — except that, being the 1970s, the city is rather more crumbling. Akerman both captures the spirit of this city, but also subtly imbues it with the darker traces of the intervening decades of the 20th century (and, with its final shot taking in the World Trade Center, also unwittingly wraps in the close of that century). To my mind, it is one of the great films about New York.

I say “experimental” above due to the form the film takes: lengthy shots observing New York City — largely Manhattan — from various vantage points (street corners, subway platforms, cars), over which the Belgian director Chantal Akerman reads letters that she received from her mother during the two years she lived in the city. It all starts slowly, with quiet and largely empty images of buildings and streets, abandoned lots in the early morning. At length, the first letter is read out, and Akerman’s mother is pleased to have received correspondence, has sent $20 for her, wonders if she has the correct address, hopes to hear back, sends her love and that of Akerman’s father.

This is how the film proceeds, the shots of the city slowly gaining more people as the camera moves a little, first a slow pan around the entrance to the subway with its ticket gates and concession stands, before a long take looking out from a moving train. Likewise, those letters with their wheedling, needy tone (it’s been two weeks and no letter from you; please send a photo) and accretion of the details of bourgeois family life back home, continue to pile on. Accompanying all this — mostly in the background, but occasionally and eventually drowning out the letter reading — are the sounds of the city, a careful orchestration of musique concrète (the sound was recorded separately from the image track).

As with Akerman’s film before this one, her masterpiece Jeanne Dielman (1975), there is a clarity of vision to her cinematographer Babette Mangolte’s camera. The strong vertical lines of the city dominate: its tall buildings and signage that line a street leading away to the horizon, or the columns that divide the screen in a long central section filmed at the shabby Times Square subway station. There’s a fascination to watching these native New Yorkers just move about on the streets and the subways, as the camera wants to be among them. Yet those long takes always make you conscious of a certain desperation to the camera’s gaze, which is sometimes met by those of the passers-by being filmed. There is a progression of sorts from the street corners to the subway to a car and a train, and in the final shot, once more empty of people, a boat heading away from Manhattan, watching its skyline slowly resolve itself into the grey smog.

The steady watchfulness of the camera is juxtaposed with the letters being read, in French, expressing Akerman’s mother’s sorrow at her daughter’s distance, fear of the dangers of the city, hope for her success and happiness. Between the image and the sound track lies a film about exile and dislocation, but one that’s never heavy-handed; you could easily read into it some of Akerman’s personal history (her mother was in Auschwitz during the war) but that’s never mentioned or insisted upon. It’s like the film’s images of New York City, which bear the marks of its mid-century decline.

And that’s what I like about News from Home in so many ways, that rather than flashy surfaces, it feels more like a film of what’s underneath, backgrounds and history (whether of the place or the people who move through that place). Maybe that’s a lot of meaning to load on what is after all a series of unflashy long takes of a city on grainy 70s film stock — picture postcards after a fashion — but the film is affecting in that way. And as I said, it’s difficult to put into words.


CREDITS
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman; Cinematographers Babette Mangolte and Jim Asbell; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 21 May 2013.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

I’m on holiday in France this week, so I’m re-posting some reviews (of French films, naturally) that I wrote many years ago when I was on LiveJournal, back when I was watching a lot more arthouse films.


Alongside the name and street address which forms the film’s title, anchoring it in a very specific place, Babette Mangolte’s camera provides the utter piercing clarity of this film, the stark images indelible in the celluloid. There’s very little camera movement, just frontal shots of the title character preparing her home in meticulous detail. When she leaves the frame, often the shot lingers on the environment she’s left, suggesting a permanency, an unchanging constant.

The film starts on Jeanne’s back as she works over the kitchen stove. There’s a doorbell, and she slowly and carefully folds away her apron before answering. The caller is a gentleman whom she ushers away into her room, and there is a cut to later, when it is darker, as he leaves the room and pays her by the doorway. This quickly creates a tension within the narrative, which is otherwise focused on a mother and homemaker. This initial rift soon gets wider, threatening the very stability of Jeanne’s life.

The minuscule focus allows the viewer to notice small details accrete, as tasks which are repeated over the three days diverge ever so slightly. That Jeanne eats the dinner she has prepared for her son with only one hand. The fumbles she makes with some of the dishes during her repeated actions on day two (the days are not consecutive, but they do follow closely upon one another). The lack of focus she shows towards some tasks. Within this dicourse, an act as otherwise mundane as peeling a potato becomes central to the viewer’s understanding of her character. The first potato is lazily done, with little energy; the second she attacks fiercely. The build-up of details seems to augur something, and when that happens on the third day, it’s not entirely unexpected.

Dielman is a progression of sorts from Akerman’s previous films. The black-and-white intensity of Je tu il elle (1974), the fixed camera positions of Hôtel Monterey (1972) observing hotel guests from afar, the monomaniacal and self-destructive short film Saute ma ville (her first film, 1968), along with a dextrous sinuous camera tracking the female protagonist that she’d develop further in Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (Meetings with Anna, 1978). All of them are focused and brilliant in their own ways, but Jeanne Dielman seems to synthesise these disparate tactics and use them to elucidate one woman’s liberation.

There’s no doubt in me as to the greatness of this work; the surprise is just how watchable and compulsive it is. No doubt this is due in great part to the lead actress, Delphine Seyrig. But the camera of Mangolte and the unerring narrative sense of Akerman are marvellous co-conspirators.

(Originally written on 22 March 2007; reposted here with slight amendments.)


CREDITS
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman; Cinematographer Babette Mangolte; Starring Delphine Seyrig; Length 201 minutes.
Seen at NFT, London, Wednesday 21 March 2007.