Russian Formalism and "Pickpocket"

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Pickpocket is a film that is centered on the life of a smalltime pickpocket after the death of his mother. In the opening sequence, Michel, the main character, is writing a letter about his past that leads into a scene at a racetrack. During the scene, he steals money from a woman’s purse and is later arrested for it. During the stealing sequence, the ‘complex sign’ is at work. The natural sign is comprised of the outdoor scene and all of the people who are at the racetrack; mainly focusing on Michel and the lady he is attempting to steal from. The conventional signs of this sequence include the outdoor scene and the transitional shots between his face and his hand on the purse. The sounds and lack thereof in this sequence are also an important part of the conventional sign. In the beginning of the sequence, there are sounds of a train and people talking with each other all around. As the scene continues, there is the also sound of the horses on the racetrack which allows Michel to steal the lady’s money. However, the lack of sound comes with the lack of clear dialogue.

The main focus of this sequence is Michel and his attempt at stealing from the lady’s purse. With the lack of dialogue between him and anyone else, the audience is forced to focus on the facial expressions of Michel – which leads to the expressive sign of the sequence. Throughout the sequence, Michel is shot in the center of the frame in a close-up. As the sequence unfolds, his facial expressions display emotions ranging from complete focus and tension to nervousness and fear and finally to relief as he successfully snatches the money.

The film also fulfills other Formalistic qualities. The fabula and sjuzhet, or story and plot, work to make the film more artistic. The fabula of the film is simply the story being told of a pickpocket. The sjuzhet of the film complicates the fabula with the use of certain artistic devices such as the flashback and beginning scenes ‘in medias res’; and thus, defamiliarizes the story for the audience. The previously mentioned sequence begins in the middle of the action. Instead of the audience seeing Michel prepare for his theft attempt and his arrival at the racetrack, the scene opens with Michel scoping out his victim. Even before that, the film opens with Michel writing a letter which makes the racetrack sequence and, subsequently, the entire film one big flashback sequence. With the sjuzhet altering the fabula in this way, it allows the imagination of the audience to work to fill in the gaps and answer the ambiguous questions left by the film in their own way.


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