Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008)

Kleptomania, a compulsion to steal without any motive or thought for what one is stealing. We consider it a disorder, a condition in which the self has no control and acts reactively, thoughtlessly, and at times, foolishly. But how different is this from the vast majority of our everyday existence, in which we react to stimuli, mainly without deep thought or reflection? Sure, we may ponder difficult questions and put a significant amount of time and mental effort into solving problems, but most of what we do is ‘off the cuff’ and mindless.

Joshua Safdie, in ‘The Pleasure of Being Robbed,’ teases out the relationship between an actual compulsive disorder and the way in which we act compulsively in our daily existence. The film follows Eléonore (Eleonore Hendricks), a kleptomanic who wanders aimlessly around Manhattan stealing things. Her list of purloined items include cell phones, bags, jewelry, scarves, cars, and in one particular case, a dog and a cache of kittens. She wastes peoples’ time frivolously too, which may be a form of thievery, although if this is a manifestation of her disorder, her kleptomania possesses a remarkably abstract and poetic imagination.

Most of the movie is a shakily shot, voyeuristic account of her burgling attempts, intended to emphasize the compulsive aspect of her disorder. She doesn’t revel in her spoils, nor is she particularly gratified by the thrill of the crime. After she steals a purse, she crouches over it, a la Gollum, and greedily riffles through its contents. She doesn’t care about what she’s stolen. Instead, she finds some joy or appeal in possessing something new; she quickly becomes bored and distracted, however, and thus we find her stuck in a cycle with no end, in which she must constantly acquire or discover novel things. We may wonder why she does this, or what would happen if she were to stop, but we are not furnished with any deeper reason of why she steals; we are supposed to take this fact at face value, that it is a vital element of Eléonore’s personality.

Is there more to Eléonore? Does she have any broader goals, what is her raison d’etre, what is she doing with herself? These are all questions left unanswered. It may frustrate some viewers that her character is not flushed out more (Laura Kern, reviewing for the Times, was particularly irked about this) but I’m of the opinion that the dearth of information that we are given about Eléonore is crucial to understanding the film, and that if we knew more about her, it would distract us. She steals compulsively, she needs to steal – this is what we know, and this is all we need to know about her. 

Eléonore’s existence, governed as it is by this compulsion, is a simple one. There is little to no reflection, no consideration given to her actions. It’s jarring to watch her, and at times frustrating to see someone move through life so thoughtlessly.

I cannot help, though, seeing similarities between her aimless impulsive behavior (classified as deviant) and what we would deem ‘normal behavior.’ After all, it seems that a significant amount of our ‘normal’ actions don’t occur after some deep, deliberative considerations. Rather, they are reactive or impulsive. We barely think about our actions. It seems that more often we simply act, as though according to habit (We don’t break the law constantly on impulse, as Eléonore does, but this isn’t due to a serious deliberation prior to our actions; it’s due to the fact that we’ve internalized and absorbed societal and legal norms that we must adhere to. Eléonore, clearly, has not.) It may be a bit discomforting to consider our lives in this light, but upon reflection, there’s more than just a tint of truth there. Just as Eléonore comes to the realization that, as a result of her actions, she’s now in Boston in bed with her friend Josh, oftentimes we can realize something similar, and say, as the song goes, “My god, how did I get here?”

Is Eléonore directly representative of us? Of course not. Safdie, hopefully, doesn’t consider us all to be impulsive pickpockets (he might, though…and wouldn’t that be something?). Despite our initial revulsion to Eléonore and her ways, we can find similarities between her compulsive method of being and our own lives. Consider the characters in the film that are supposed to be normal, as opposed to the abnormality of Eléonore. They too act on whims: Josh decides to steal a car with Eléonore, and a cop who’s arrested her decides to allow her to wander around the Central Park Zoo for a couple of minutes (handcuffed, but solo). These might be deemed, in retrospect, actions that weren’t exactly well-thought out, if thought about at all. But if we take away the extremity of these actions, they occur in a way that isn’t much different from any other choice we might make. We’re not that different, Safdie seems to be saying, from Eléonore; it’s what we do, what our actions are that set us apart from her, but not how we do them.

Image: Red Bucket Films

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