New Yorker Video have recently released Robert Bresson’s L’Argent (1983) on DVD, and this review of the film will predicate our complete review of the DVD at www.robert-bresson.com shortly. –Doug
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For many, Robert Bresson’s final work, L’Argent (1983), is a perfect formal and thematic culmination of the filmmaker’s sporadic, but consistently provocative career. But its reception has always been mixed; at its Cannes Film Festival premiere, Bresson received a new prize (presented by Orson Welles)–the Grand Prix de CrÈation–which he shared with Andrei Tarkovsky (for Nostalghia), and members of the audience booed the 82-year old filmmaker over the accompanying applause. (Cannes footage was dropped from the MK2 DVDs that provided the source material for New Yorker’s disc, but the distasteful moment is preserved in De Boer and Rood’s 1984 documentary, The Road to Bresson.)
Self-appointed guardians of fashion had dismissed Bresson as a member of France’s vintage cinema rather than its contemporary cutting edge, but such a label could only have been applied by those unfamiliar with L’Argent‘s searing social critique and singular, fragmented poetry. Twenty-two years after its debut, it remains firmly embedded in the cinematic consciousness.
Although Bresson had previously adapted several works by Dostoevsky, L’Argent was adapted from a story by Tolstoy, “The Forged Coupon,” which depicts the suffering that ensues from the use of a counterfeit check. It was an “account of how evil spreads,” said Bresson, whose career had long identified a love of money as a primary human vice–from Michel’s “misadventures” in Pickpocket to the heartless miser in Au hasard Balthazar, to the suicide’s accomplice in The Devil Probably. And Tolstoy’s terse and direct prose seems ready-made for Bresson’s physical detail:
“After dinner the gymnasium student went back to his room, took the coupon and change from his pocket, and threw it on his desk; then he took off his uniform and put on a jacket. He picked up a worn Latin grammar text for a moment and then got up and locked his door. With a motion of his hand he swept the money off the desk and into a box, took some cigarette papers from the box, filled one with tobacco, rolled it up, and lit it.” (trans. David Patterson)
Further, Bresson connects the financial swindle (and the subsequent bribes to obscure it) with the idleness and isolation of the middle class; characters seem obsessed with the cult of beauty (several nude paintings and call girls feature in the early scenes), resurfaces as an oblivious businessman reading his newspaper stumbles into a bank robbery, and continues through an assortment of businesspeople and law enforcers who misinterpret events.
“[M]y film is about today’s unconscious indifference when people only think about themselves and their families,” Bresson told Michel Ciment in an interview reprinted in James Quandt’s monograph. “But it is not an anti-bourgeois film. It is not about the bourgeoisie, but about specific people. I am a bourgeois myself. I simply happened to have observed people like that. That’s what I like about the Tolstoy story. People from other classes can behave in the same way, for the love of their children. They are not intrinsically evil, but their behavior has evil consequences.”
The story is simple. A fresh-faced youth asks his father for extra money, the father refuses. The boy is then convinced by a friend to buy an item with a counterfeit bill and pocket the change. Later, after having discovered the ruse, the shopkeeper passes the bill (along with others) to an unsuspecting workman, Yvon, who is arrested trying to spend the false money. Taken to court, Yvon pleads innocence, but the shopkeeper and his employee, Lucien, give false testimony and Yvon is humiliated at work. Quitting his job, but still having to support his family, Yvon makes a series of tragic choices that land him in jail, break-up his family, and send him on a murderous rampage.
Bresson described Yvon as being forsaken by society, and the sense of injustice that pervades the film resides in its contrast between people seemingly protected by an exclusive system and a working class laborer who lacks the social leverage necessary for justice. In jail, Yvon burns with anger as his cellmate blithely tells him, “Someone fond of you protects you from afar. A relative or a friend, say.” “I have no relatives, no friends, and no wife,” Yvon corrects him. “Never mind,” his cellmate answers, “toe the line.”
Yvon’s trajectory in prison is the opposite path taken by Fontaine in A Man Escaped despite the films’ similar use of motifs: the rattling of keys, restricted points of view, and an emphasis on penal ritual and the covert ways in which it’s subverted (a scene at mass provides the prisoners opportunity to trade contraband). While Fontaine begins the earlier film in solitary confinement and slowly establishes connections with those around him, Yvon is placed in solitary because of tensions with his fellow prisoners and guards and remains emotionally separated from them. Yet in Bresson’s paradoxical manner, one of Yvon’s greatest defeats is his lack of privacy; everyone, from prison employees to cellmates, intrude upon his personal letters and the details of his crumbling marriage. “Why are they all staring at me?” Yvon protests in the prison cafeteria, and twice in the film he hides his face while grieving, as if to escape the world around him.
Like the privileged teenagers, Lucien, the shopkeeper’s employee, provides another point of contrast to Yvon. Tasting dishonesty, Lucien becomes a modern day Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor: “I’ll be kind when I’m rich,” he tells his cohorts, and after he’s arrested, insists in court that he’s a generous person. (For a director with a reputation for humorlessness, Bresson provides the judge with a wickedly funny response: “The investigation has revealed that, along with your love of good suits.”)
But Lucien’s criminal idealism (not altogether unlike Michel’s elitism in Pickpocket) is cheap, self-serving, and continues the pattern of denial by the film’s characters, dismissing personal responsibility. Lucien prides himself on the fact that his crimes were non-violent, and reaffirms that fact when Yvon threatens his life. “We’re not killers,” Lucien says. “We alone have no one on our conscience.” “You have me on your conscience,” Yvon reminds him. (In a previous scene, Bresson has one of his minor characters voice an aphorism that is, typical for the filmmaker, part profundity and part absurdity: “A man who hasn’t killed can be worse than a mass murderer.”)
L’Argent showcases the filmmaker at the height of his formal ingenuity, particularly his use of narrative ellipses and fragmented space (close-ups of legs, hands, objects). Having already dispensed with nondiegetic music earlier in his career, the entire film provides Bresson an opportunity for artful manipulation of the soundtrack. Passing streetcars, the crackle and jingle of money, the tinny roar of mopeds, the ringing of registers, the screech of sirens and whistles, and prison echoes are all rendered in precise and vivid terms.
“In a film,” Bresson told Ciment, “sound and picture progress jointly, overtake each other, slip back, come together again, move forward jointly again. What interests me, on a screen, is counterpoint.” Bresson’s balletic tone could describe an early scene when Yvon is unexpectedly confronted by a waiter. Subdued dining sounds subtly decrescendo as Yvon stands and faces the waiter; a cut suddenly introduces Yvon’s fast moving hand as he grabs the man’s sweater and pushes him away with a swoosh; the image remains on Yvon’s hand–an appendage which has begun its social revolt–while a loud crashing sound is heard offscreen; the image then cuts to the waiter’s legs, steadying before a fallen table and broken dishes; after a pause, a car engine if heard slowing down and idling at close range and the image cuts to a police car later in the day. Bresson’s counterpoint of sound and image continually emphasizes and intensifies the action.
Although the film contains a great deal of formal beauty, it’s also an unsparing, severe work that follows its dramatic conflicts to their ultimate end. The bulk of the film’s final scenes are set in the idyllic countryside as Yvon contemplates his compulsive desire for violence. The green grass and foliage, rustic sounds of birds and flowing water, and the appearance of one of the few compassionate characters in the film are unexpected relief. Yet the uncommon peace is a “quiet before the storm” (as Bresson described it), and the virtually silent, chilling discovery of an axe in a barn initiates Yvon’s final, devastating violence.
Although many viewers have labeled L’Agent a bleak and despairing work, such a reading is often based on the film’s violent climax and abrupt ending, and tends to overlook its closing reversal, underplayed and delivered as a coda in a minor key. For Tolstoy, it initiates Part Two of The Forged Coupon, which Bresson merely hints at. Yvon returns to the city and enters a cafÈ, takes a drink, and turns himself in to nearby policemen, confessing his violence with blood on his clothes. On the surface, the scene provides little counterpoint to the horrors witnessed just moments before. Yet, significantly, it’s the first time in the film that a guilty person openly accepts responsibility for his or her actions and willingly submits to the authorities. For the moment, the violence has stopped, and in opposition to the film’s consistent depiction of an aloof and distracted bourgeoisie, all the patrons of the cafÈ gather and regard Yvon and his situation with a hushed, intense focus. The world watches. It may be the faintest glimmer of hope, but in a film predicated on deception and denial, indifference and disconnection, it’s a profoundly moving denouement that lingers.