Looking for “Intrusions of Grace” in Films: Pickpocket and Drive

“Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violence which precede and follow them.”     — Flannery O’Connor (as quoted in my previous post)

Flannery O’Connor made this remark back in 1963. It was not only a sharp social commentary and prophetic, but to me, it also stands as one of the signs of a good film. Amidst the violence and ugliness a film may depict, the presence of grace, however small, or a mere spot of purity, could bring out a powerful contrast. Usually that is what’s needed to emit a redemptive spark, offering a glimpse of light pointing to the transcendent.

With this frame of grace among violence, I go back to the films I’ve watched and try to find some good examples. My task proves to be more difficult than I first thought. But after some deep searching through my mental archive, several films came to mind. I’ll just mention two for this post.

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Pickpocket (1959)

Robert Bresson’s modern version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Caught in his own desensitized internal world, our protagonist Michel commits acts of theft as a desperate measure to fill the void in his existence. He goes through his days in a haunting vacuum devoid of meaning and emotions. He is unfeeling even towards his own dying mother, reminds me of Meursault in Camus’s The Stranger. Although not an axe murderer, like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Michel theorizes that those with superior talents and intelligence, the supermen in society, should be free to disobey laws in certain cases. He is numbed by his own hubris, and stifled by his cold and absurd worldview. Outright violence is not visible here, but we see the battle of wits he engages with the police inspector behind his trails, and we see him struggle in an amoral and meaningless existence.

Grace comes as Jeanne, a neighbor and carer of Michel’s ailing mother. Jeanne lives on her own looking after her younger brother. Her father is a drunk and her mother has deserted them. But she continues to live and care. She accepts her circumstances calmly, and extends kindness to those unrelated to her, caring for Michel’s mother, a neighbor on another floor. She stands as a stark contrast to Michel’s aloofness. At the end of the film, Jeanne came to visit Michel in prison after he was arrested, the two separated by the cold iron bars. For the first time, Michel feels love and wants to reciprocate it. And thus the cathartic ending as he totally melts in the presence of pure love and grace, wrapping up the film with this last line:

“Oh, Jeanne, to reach you at last, what a strange path I had to take.”

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Drive (2011)

A current release that comes with high acclaims. The film was nominated for the Palme d’Or and Nicolas Winding Refn won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival this year. With slick and dashing camera work, the violence in “Drive” is visceral and graphic, a big contrast to the black and white, internal “Pickpocket”. However, I see some parallels between these two films made 50 years apart.

Ryan Gosling is “the Driver”. He does not even have a name. He is an expert stunt driver for movies and works at an autobody shop by day, drives a get-away car in the underworld of crimes by night. Like Michel in “Pickpocket”, he drifts in existence, numb and desensitized to the world around him. That is, until he meets Irene (Carey Mulligan), his neighbor.

Mulligan’s almost angelic presence in the film is most effective as a stark contrast to those around her. She lives alone looking after a child and works as a waitress in a diner. She appeals to the Driver by being herself, innocent, taking life as it is, responsible, caring for a child alone while her husband is locked up in prison. Irene is a spot of purity in a rough environment. Her mere presence has transformed the Driver. From being aloof the Driver has become engaged emotionally, friendly and protective of both mother and son.

The plot thickens as Irene’s husband is released from prison and rejoins his family. The Driver is caught in an awkward situation. But he soon realizes that the husband’s resolve for a new start is genuine. The power of transformation is so thorough that the Driver is willing to go out on a limb to help the husband with one last heist in order to break the hold a gang has on the man and his wife and kid. While things go awry terribly and the ending is not as clean-cut as “Pickpocket”, we learn that the Driver remains a changed man from the ephemeral friendship he once had with Irene and her child.

I’ve heard a critic say Mulligan is a miscast, that she’s not “damaged enough”, and would prefer a ‘stronger’ character. I disagree. I feel that Mulligan has portrayed Irene’s innocent persona aptly, and yes, those ethereal dimples can just melt any heart. Hers is the perfect role for exactly the right reason. In the dark underworld of gangs, violence and crimes, she stands out as a tiny source of purity, a spark of grace. It all shows that what may look weak and vulnerable can have transformative power over the strong. A thought that may well be unpopular today.

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Other related posts from Ripple Effects:

A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

Bernini’s Corpus and Modern Movies

Notes on the Synthesis of Film, Art… Life?

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

10 thoughts on “Looking for “Intrusions of Grace” in Films: Pickpocket and Drive”

  1. Arti – I love how you opened with the O’Connor quote. I’m glad I was able to spark you to further explore the comparison of these two films.

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    David,

    You know, sometimes I need prompting, and other times, confirmation. Blogging sure can deliver both!

    Arti

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  2. What a lovely concept, the idea of grace punctuating violence like a rose between thorns. I don’t know either of the films you discuss (so no surprises there – my film knowledge is so awful), but of the two, I’d rather see the first as graphic violence doesn’t work for me. The first does sound intriguing, though.

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    1. litlove,

      What a beautiful analogy… a rose between thorns. I agree the French film “Pickpocket” would be a readily enjoyable film for you. It has the marks of Dostoevsky and Camus. You have an advantage over me in that you can watch it without relying on the English subtitles. Do click on the link I’ve there for Robert Bresson. He’s the French director acclaimed for infusing ‘transcendental’ moments in his films. I remember you’d enjoyed Georges Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d’un curé de campagne). It was Bresson who made its film adaptation, which I highly recommend along with “Pickpocket.”

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  3. P.S. Arti – and you have inspired me to seek out O’Connor’s stories. She is one I have been meaning to check out for years – but your last two posts have convinced me I’ve been a fool for waiting so long!

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    David,

    I too ‘rediscover’ Flannery O’Connor recently. I find it a fresh experience to read her from a cinematic frame. Enjoy your read!

    Arti

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  4. This is an excellent project of yours, Arti. I admire your critic’s eye, the analysis of what works and what doesn’t when violence is written into a film.

    In both stories as you’ve recounted them, I’m reminded of the true story depicted in the book The Other Wes Moore, which I have not read, but heard an interview about on NPR. Two young men grew up in an urban community, both African American, both named “Wes Moore.” One became an attorney, the other a thief and finally murderer, ending up in prison. When the attorney heard about “the other Wes Moore” and the murder that had taken place in his community (his mother warned him, “they’re looking for Wes Moore!”), he became intrigued. Why did he go through his own petty criminal stage, but end up in a respectable life, and the other Wes Moore end up a criminal in prison? He went and visited him, and they decided to write their story together. The poignant thing he said in the interview was that he believed he lived the life he did because his mother loved him, and he wanted to please her. The other Wes Moore had little love and nurture at home, and his “family” became the drug dealing gang he worked for. They provided him much needed love and acceptance, and so he wanted to please them.

    These stories are part of our world, and they need telling. Thank you for your work here.

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  5. Here is a link to the book if you are interested.

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    Ruth,

    Thanks for the link and your retelling of the story. I remember vaguely that I’ve heard of this before, but glad to know that one Wes Moore has written a book. His bio is both impressive and inspiring, certainly proves a point. While I agree love is a great motivator and can transform lives, there is also the element of free will. I’m sure there are loving but heart-broken parents out there whose children have chosen the wrong path. But yes, in both of these films, the protagonists were changed by grace, and for that we’re gratified to see a resolution, albeit more for “Pickpocket” than “Drive”.

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  6. Arti, I’m very impressed about your knowledge of film and also about taking the concept and theme you began with and finding it in the examples you have shared. I’m not familiar with either of these films, and after reading about them am very interesting in checking them out. Thanks.

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    jeanie,

    Thanks for your kind words. Films have been my passion all my life, and in recent years, ‘books into films’. Between these two, you’ll likely enjoy “Pickpocket” more since some violent sequences in “Drive” may be too shocking for you. Yes, definitely check out Bresson’s “Pickpocket” or his other works, which are well-known for their transcendent value.

    Arti

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  7. Really intriguing thoughts. There is so much power in a character than can bring a man like the driver to express genuine compassion and helpfulness. If her character had been more damaged, I don’t think that the film would have worked as well. It’s almost as if she’s the antithesis of the femme fatale. Have you seen Punch-Drunk Love? Would you agree that Emily Watson’s character, in some ways, takes on the same sort of role? Outstanding post!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment. I watched Punch-Drunk Love years ago, don’t quite remember the details. But an ‘intrusion of grace’ is not hard to find in literature and movies, and by extension, in real life. I’ve appreciated our dialogues and hope to generate more ripples with our blog posts.

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