Joshua Safdie, The Pleasure of Being Robbed, 2008.

Norman N. Holland

Enjoying:  I think it’s crucial with this film, that so many people have been annoyed by, to keep thinking about the pattern of the action as it’s happening. It may help to read the essay below first.

The opening: entering the victim’s space

How to steal a handbag

Opening someone else’s bag  (the kittens)

Josh helps her steal the Volvo

The space that gets her arrested

The Edenic fantasy

Last shot: switching CDs

    Reviewers and ordinary viewers on IMDb and other web sites have pointed out lots of reasons for disliking this mumblecore movie. The camera work is helter-skelter, the plot aimless. Eléonore (Eleonore Hendricks, Safdie’s girlfriend) goes around NYC stealing people’s purses and keeping the objects in them in her crammed apartment. Including a dog and four kittens. In a night club she sneaks car keys out of a backpack and finds the Volvo that belongs to them. She picks up Josh (Safdie himself) who teaches her to drive, sort of, and they drive up to his flat in Boston. Back in New York (with Josh’s hat and jacket), she is caught rifling a purse and arrested, but manages to be allowed to visit the Central Park Zoo anyway (a reference to an earlier short by Safdie).

    The film feels random and unexplained. The camerawork is amateurish, handheld 16mm. Motivations? None. We can only explain the heroine’s thefts by assuming she’s klepto. Why Josh goes along with this very risky car theft, I don’t know.

    Most irritating is the director’s failure to pass any kind of judgment on the thefts. The actress is or was Safdie’s girlfriend—maybe that’s why. But she really hurts people. I’ve had my wallet stolen, and I can tell you, it is a misery, cancelling all your credit cards, changing your bank accounts, locking your identity—you name it. She even steals a bunch of kittens, spoiling a father’s surprise for his little girl. She just turns a dog she’s stolen loose to survive god-knows-how. She gets in a Volvo she’s stolen and drives it when she doesn’t know how to drive, endangering everybody on the street—and Josh-Safdie goes right along. She’s awful, and so is he! Talk about feckless youth! Acne and all.

    But strangely, I also found her thefts in a curious kind of way endearing. She shows a kind of childlike innocence. It is as though other people’s belongings, things they take seriously, exist for her only as playthings. That’s an odd reaction on my part. Why do I get this feeling?

    All these negatives said, let me point out something in the film’s favor. It does home in on one particular theme that runs consistently through the whole movie. People—Eléonore, but others, too—intrude on other people’s private spaces.

    The theme begins in the opening when Eléonore rushes across the street to embrace someone she really doesn’t know and slip the startled woman’s shoulderbag onto her own shoulder. Later, we see her pawing through the bag, pulling stuff out. She steals grapes from a corner grocery. She enters a table tennis tournament where she has no business playing these experts. Having stolen a Volvo, she starts driving on the streets of New York when she doesn’t know how to drive. In the Metropolitan Museum she grabs at some sign. In a children’s playground, she pokes through one of the mothers’ handbags and gets arrested for doing so. She constantly enters somebody else’s space.

    Sometimes she just changes what’s in a space. In Josh’s apartment, she puts an intruding horsefly outside. In a music store, she switches CDs between her player and the store’s boxes. But she’s constantly dealing with spaces, usually intrusively.

    And it isn’t just Eléonore who intrudes on spaces. Other people do. Her neighbor Mike tries to push his way into her apartment. The dog she steals becomes an unwelcome presence in her building. In a rest stop men’s room, Josh squirts cologne on himself, smelling up the Volvo. The horsefly gets into Josh’s apartment. A man bursts into a bar offering drinks for all, then sheepishly reneges. In her own apartment, the noise of someone’s trumpet intrudes. Someone else has been harassing animals at the Central Park Zoo, a space she wants to get into and does.

    The clearest idea of getting into a space comes when Eléonore fantasizes, at the Central Park Zoo, that she gets into the polar bear’s enclosure. But then there is a vertical wipe (like a glass partition rolling down), and she and the polar bear—a polar bear so outrageously obviously fake that it says right out loud, This is fantasy—she and the bear splash around in a pristine stream. But not pristine. Even there, a man intrudes on the scene and tosses a bag of what looks like garbage into the stream.

    This is a film as much about space as about theft. Interestingly, in an interview, Safdie identified his filmmaking with space: “That’s where filmmaking comes from for me - it’s a place to learn from and a place to escape to.”

    Having one’s own small space that others don’t barge into, that’s the essence of city living. (And the street photography in Pleasure is quite good.) But people do barge in on you. As she says when she opens the bag with the kittens, “I know what it’s like to be in a tote bag with a wild dog.” You need your own space, the very spaces that she violates. This is very much a film of city life in the early 21st century. That’s why the fantasy episode, romping with a polar bear in a pristine stream, is such a telling contrast.

    In the message board for this film on IMDb, one viewer (“Coporal-Tunnel”) suggests that the scene with Eléonore and the bear in the stream “was part of a whole Eve-in-the-Garden motif, where her innocence is total because she is living in a state of grace, childlike, without any notion of sin.” “Her subsequent splash into the river feels a bit like a baptism (this point was contributed by the actress in a discussion of the film).” And the bear (being fake) doesn’t kill her—more Garden-of-Eden stuff.

    I think that’s a fruitful point, particularly when combined with the theme of intruding into spaces. Eléonore intrudes into a space, in imagination, but it’s all right because it’s in imagination and because it’s in nature, not a city. In nature spaces flow into one another, but not in Manhattan. She’s an innocent treating city spaces as though she were in the Garden of Eden. That leads us to the most obvious “pleasure of being robbed,” that is, by paying to see this movie (to enter the IFC theater and Joshua Safdie’s imaginative space).

    Perhaps this child-of-nature idea explains my odd reaction, feeling that she’s an innocent when she commits these rotten thefts. Yes, in a city, it’s mean and awful when people intrude on your space and take things from it. But in the world that Eléonore fantasizes, a state of nature, where even bears are benevolent and playful, it works. The problem is, she tries to live that in the heart of downtown New York. She does seem an innocent, but also guilty as hell. The mix yields an intriguing, if not particularly pleasing, film.

Enjoying:  Now that you’ve watched it, what do you think? Most people think it’s a lemon and dismiss it. I think it’s more worthwhile than that, once you start watchng for the various spaces being invaded. The film can be an interesting experience, and I hope it has been for you.

The End

— N. N. H.