So, I admit up front – I didn’t like this. And as is my wont, it’s because of the story it told. However, I thought at first that the reason I didn’t like it was that it had somehow taken all the things I’d liked about The 400 Blows and then done the opposite; upon reflection, though, I think something a little different.
As is probably no surprise, our lead is a pickpocket. Michel (Martin LaSalle) is a young Parisian man, living in a cramped attic garret and finding his own pocket money by helping himself to others’. His buddy Jacques (Pierre Leymarie) keeps urging him to get a normal job – going so far as to set Michel up on interviews – and the local Chief Police Inspector (Jean Pélégri) keeps sniffing around, suspicious of Michel but never able to find enough evidence. Michel’s ailing mother (Dolly Scal) thinks the sun rises and sets on him, but Michel is too reluctant to visit, leaving money for her instead with her pretty neighbor Jeanne (Marika Green). Michel has tried to break the habit several times, but is compelled to keep stealing – and soon catches the eye of two other pickpocketers, who teach him some of their own techniques and suggest the three of them team up.
One of the things I liked about The 400 Blows is the matter-of-fact tone it took; here, we have instead a near-constant narration track, either a confession or an apologia from Michel, and it kept bothering me – because I bought none of it. Michel ultimately is one of those people who believe that they’re too smart or too unique or to “special” for ordinary work – he says as much to the Chief Inspector at one point – and believes that this gives him free rein to help himself to others’ money. Don’t blame Michel for his crimes – blame God for making Michel such a good pickpocket!
I wrestled with how to write this review for a while – I came away from it not liking Michel on a gut level, and that kept me from getting into the film, no matter how well-shot it was. And there are some beautifully-choreographed shots – there’s a whole sequence where Michel and his two pickpocket accomplices wander amidst the crowds at a train station, meticulously and methodically picking other people’s pockets and clandestinely handing the spoils off to each other. With one victim, they even put the now-empty wallet back in the dude’s pocket.
I did find one technical point that bothered me – the sound design seemed to emphasize people’s footsteps to an unusually noticeable level, to the point that I could tell they were all faked. For a while I thought that this was what bothered me about the film, more so than Michel – but I kept coming back to just plain not liking Michel. And I finally realized why – for four years, we were living with a president who was an even bigger narcissist, and I think I may simply have had my fill of people who think that they are Too Special To Follow The Rules or are More Important Than Anyone Else.
I grant that 1959 is not 2021, and director Robert Bresson couldn’t have forseen Trumpism. But there it is.