Don't Forget the Bag:
The Pleasure of Being Robbed
Earlier this year Variety reported that director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) would be working on a short film in collaboration with designer Pierpaolo Piccioli, the director of the Valentino fashion house. Last week it was announced that the 35-minute film titled: The Staggering Girl has an all-star cast (Julianne Moore, Kiki Lane, Kyle McLaughlin, and Mia Goth) and is set to premiere at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. The abundance of talent alongside Guadagnino’s flourishing reputation has drawn a lot of attention, but also sparked a conversation about the fine lines between the commercial and the artistic.
Instead of retreading that conversation, let’s take look back to another film created under similar circumstances and screened at the Cannes Director’s Fortnight in 2008. The film in question is The Pleasure of Being Robbed, the debut feature of Josh Safdie of the Safdie Brothers (Good Time). Like Guadagnino’s upcoming film, The Pleasure of Being Robbed was also slated to be a short film. It was funded by and created in collaboration with Andy Spade, the husband to Kate Spade and co-founder of the fashion brand. Spade had given Safdie the freedom to expand and alter the story as he saw fit, and so in writing the script together with his girlfriend Eleonore Hendricks (who would star in the film), this short spot quickly grew into the size of a full feature.
The Pleasure of Being Robbed serves as a fantastic example of the type of work that could grow out of this type of collaboration. The boldness and sensitivity of Safdie’s unique approach to the mumblecore genre heralded the arrival of a brilliant new cinematic voice, and while it was a rather negligible boon for the Kate Spade brand Andy Spade wasn’t bothered, being instead thrilled by the films’ success.
The Pleasure of Being Robbed tells the story of Eleonore (Eleonore Hendricks) a young woman aimlessly wandering the streets of New York while occasionally stealing handbags and other small items from the strangers she encounters. Immediate plot parallels can be drawn to Robert Bresson’s classic Pickpocket, with a more contemporary reference being Christopher Nolan’s debut: Following. However, the style and tone seems more inspired by the early work of Cassavetes like Shadows, and that of Andrew Bujalski’s mumblecore-genre defining Funny Ha Ha. This blend of influences and ideas creates an experience at once sophisticated and coy, a stylized naturalism that would only grow in power with later works from the Safdie Brothers.
The opening scene tells us everything we need to know about Eleonore. We follow along from across the street watching her yell random names our way. ‘Amanda, Janet, Julie, Dawn.” Cut to a stranger walking on the other side. ‘Dawn’ she yells, and it works, it gets the spark, the moment of recognition, the stranger stops and looks back at her. “Dawn!” Eleanor reasserts. The woman stands with a mixture of concern and confusion on her face. Eleonore crosses the street in a pantomime of meeting an old friend. ‘You look so good.’ she says. Dawn feigns recognition and an uneasy smile. As Eleonore goes in for a hug, her hand slides under the shoulder strap of Dawn’s bright red handbag, Eleonore slips it onto her own shoulder with an elegant motion as the hug releases. The whole exchange is unnoticed, and in seconds she’s gone, Dawn walks away not realizing the bag is gone as well. A little bit later we watch Eleonore meet an actual friend, the same niceties the same movements, nothing seems stolen except maybe time. Eleonore showed up an hour late.
This first hint of this parallel between Eleonore’s relationship to the strangers she robs and her friends underlines the nuances of the film and positions us to examine the nature of her theft in a deeper way than just stealing for necessity. On the other hand, this isn’t quite the anxious and semi-erotic expression of theft to be found in Pickpocket, or the didactic, ‘let them know what it feels like to be robbed’ from Nolan’s Following. Instead, Eleonore finds a simple pleasure within the act and allows herself to be led along by the various objects she finds and impressions they make on her. One striking shot reflects on this idea as Eleonore watches a man walking a handbag on a leash like one would a dog. Eleonore stops for a second watching the bag tug at its leash pulling the man forward.
In this same way Eleonore is propelled forward by the bags she finds, the most literal version of this is finding a pair of car keys, subsequently finding the car that fits them, and then with the help of her friend Josh (Josh Safdie) learns to drive that very night, and drives him home to Boston. The breakneck pacing that takes her from the discovery of the car keys to Josh’s Boston apartment fits well into the dreamy framework that Safdie builds. A person can’t just get behind the wheel of a car for the first time and then comfortably drive from New York to Boston and back, but then again, handbags aren’t really walked like dogs either. The New York City that Safdie captures is bursting at the seams with those little indelible touches that make it as enigmatic and magical as it can feel in real life.
Yet, this type of wayward wandering is not the entire story of Eleonore’s kleptomania, there is something deeper, more profound buried behind her uneasy smile. In one of the best shots of the film we watch Eleonore settle on a stoop as she explores the contents of another stolen bag. Inside it is a digital camera, we look over her shoulder as she turns on the viewfinder to find a recorded video. A small home-video snippet just a few seconds long plays, a couple at home sharing an intimate moment. Safdie’s camera hangs behind Eleonore’s shoulder as she watches and reacts to herself. At this moment Eleonore and the audience become one. This scene quietly asks us to consider our relationship to Eleonore as the audience surrogate.
In Nolan’s Following, the protagonist is a writer and as the film goes on we get a sense of the ways in which he attempts to insert himself into the narrative he constructs. Eleonore’s approach is more passive, she is merely a spectator allowing the moments from the lives of others to wash over her and give her the emotional peaks that she is unable or unwilling to reach by herself. Towards the end of the film, when Eleonore is finally caught in the act of stealing, she repeats ‘I’m not doing anything, I’m just looking through it.’ as her explanation and defense. While this serves as a type of on-the-spot excuse, ‘just looking’ is also the deeply honest expression of what Eleonore does and why she steals.
This lens helps to better frame and understand the significance of the spectacular zoo sequence that follows. After her arrest, the ride back to the police station is disrupted by a call from the Central Park Zoo, a man is harassing the animals. Once there, through another bit of magic, Eleonore convinces one of the cops to let her roam around for 15 minutes. At the polar bear enclosure we see a shot of Eleonore pressed against the glass, cut to a close up of Eleonore’s hands behind her still in handcuffs, cut to Eleonore’s eyes watching the polar bear through the glass, and finally, a cut to first-person perspective as the glass falls beneath the frame, and Eleonore is able to move past it. We watch her run to the polar bear, cuddle and play, until the zookeeper above tosses in a penguin as food. The camera lingers on Eleonore’s face as it contorts into sadness, followed by a cut to a close up of Eleonore in the back of the squad car on the cusp of tears.
Within this sequence we watch Eleonore pass from being a spectator to becoming an active participant, a transition which is immediately met with a sobering reality, resulting in an emotional pain that we haven’t yet seen from her in the film. Looking into this a little deeper, it becomes noteworthy that the bag that she is caught ‘just looking through’ is owned by a mother playing with her daughter at the park. Throughout the film, we see no sign or mention of Eleonore’s family, and this point is underlined at the arrival at the police station. The man who was picked up by the cops asks to be uncuffed as his mother lives in the neighborhood.
As he says this, the camera shows Eleonore lost in thought, tears welling in her eyes. No one comes to pick her up. Was the transgression that got her caught grounded in a yearning for family, or perhaps motherhood? Michel, the pickpocket of Bresson’s classic film is unwilling to visit his dying mother, unwilling to allow himself to love Jeanne who is in love with him, at least until the point at which he is caught, unable to run from the reality of his emotions. Much like Pickpocket, Eleonore hits this emotional peak and transcendence by entering captivity, reflected in the dream by entering the polar bear enclosure, and in reality in the back of the cop car.
After this sequence of events, we see Eleonore leave the station, time passes, and by the end of the film, we watch her steal again. Unlike Michel in the Pickpocket, Eleonore isn’t actually captured or permanently altered by the experience. Instead, she walks free through the gentle New York snow returning right back to where she was. As the credits roll we are left with the sounds of Thelonious Monk and this coda:
‘For the curious, the distractions of life, the heart-broken, and anyone who’s had the pleasure of being robbed.’
A gorgeous summation of the messy ideas on display. This brings us back to the added layer of messiness, the odd origins of this as a supposed commercial for the Kate Spade brand. In the scene when the cops arrive at the station, the one leading Eleonore turns back to his partner: “Where’s your hat? Don’t forget the bag either!’ Even here, the bag is an afterthought.
Where to stream The Pleasure of Being Robbed: iTunes
A review of the startling Styx (2019). This taut moral thriller explores the costs of inaction in the face of crisis.
A quick guide to get you up to speed with some of the very best films to have come out this year.
This under the radar documentary is one of the best of the year, offering a piercing look into the intersections of race and class in America.