These days, movies can be made out of virtually nothing at all, like a poem — only a sense of drive and subject are required. Too often there’s nothing but ego at the center of today’s micro-indies, but Joshua Safdie’s “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” isn’t merely slacker realism or geysering quirk. It’s a character portrait, and I haven’t seen the likes of Eléonore (Eléonore Hendricks) since the ’70s, when Cassavetes movies bristled with compulsive nowhere figures living out their no-future lives by trying to seize the elusive present, and trying to do so with a fire in their bellies.
Eléonore isn’t a yuppie mumble-bum making small talk, but a low-rent, fringe-lost waif who supports herself through guileless kleptomania, and who never seems to contemplate consequences, only actions. At the outset, we see her scam a woman on the street by shouting out random names to her until she gets a reaction, and then slips on the oblivious woman’s purse in a hug. When she blindly grabs some bags off the sidewalk in front of a hotel, she ends up, back in her cluttered, ephemera-packed apartment, with a puppy (which she instantly and guiltlessly shoos out into the hallway and locks the door), and a sack of kittens, which, without batting an eye, she names one by one and then flings them across the room onto her bed. For the rest of the movie, we wonder how those kittens are making out, because Eléonore doesn’t.
Shot in classic secret-camera vérité style — there are some scenes, like Eléonore’s shoplifting routine in Tower Records, that could’ve easily be done for real and on the sly — Safdie’s movie veers gradually, almost imperceptibly, into a dreaminess that could be read as Eléonore’s mental instability. But there’s no being sure about it — after purse-snatching and finding a set of car keys, she struggles to find the car they belong to until a laid-back, bike-riding friend, Josh (Safdie), happens by and helps her.
They sit in the car, but Eléonore doesn’t know how to drive, and so Josh teaches her, and they take a bumpy road trip to Jersey. Only after they get back — Josh wants to fuck her, but Eléonore is just as much an enigma to him as she is to us — does Eléonore get arrested, and the gears of her reality begin to slip. There’s one too-brief shot of her wandering in a magical daze through Central Park Zoo in handcuffs, and from there anything we see — including a fake polar bear that’d make Guy Maddin proud — can be part of her strange, childish subjectivity.
The subtle concept of Eléonore is the drug of this drifty, poignant movie, but Hendricks makes for a beguiling delivery system — we see the hypnotic disconnect in Eléonore’s eyes right away, and together with Hendricks’ adolescent-ish beauty, boyish affect and convincing I’m-invisible quality suggest a number of convincing backstory possibilities, none of which, thankfully, are explained out.
We’ve all seen people like Eléonore on the street — the ones that want to talk to us despite being strangers, the ones that have no visible means of support, the ones that play shamelessly like children, as if they were caught in a record-skip somewhere on their lives’ timeline. Safdie’s movie begins on the outside of this alien creature, and ends somewhere on the inside, but, because that’s the way it is for real, she remains a mystery.