L'ARGENT (Bresson, 1983)
New Yorker Vido, DVD, Release Date May 24, 2005 (currently out-of-print)
Review by Christopher S. Long
(The greatest director in the history of cinema was born Sep 25, 1901, or maybe 1903, or maybe he just always was. My review of his final masterpiece was originally published in 2005 and has been substantially revised for reposting today. I know a lot more about Bresson now than when I first wrote it, but I wasn't too far off. At least I knew it was awesome. My apologies for not having good screenshots for the first scene I analyze in detail but, well, I don't have them. You'll just have to watch the movie.)
An old man walks down the street while reading a newspaper. He passes by a parked car in which our protagonist Yvon (Christian Patey) sits quietly and looks straight ahead. Several police cars speed by, sirens blaring. The old man continues walking until he sees three men, presumably police officers, crouching behind their cars, so still they could be sculptures: the old man hurries away. Across the street, another man (we cannot see who) comes out of a bank, holding a woman in front of him. One of the crouching men very deliberately aims his gun.
Cut back to Yvon as he sits in his car still staring blankly; a single gunshot rings out off-screen; if Yvon hears it, he does not react. The man retreats cautiously back into the bank: who fired at whom and why doesn’t anyone seem to be panicking? Cut back to Yvon once again as a volley of gunshots rattles off-screen. He reaches slowly for the ignition and starts the car. Hold on an extended closeup of Yvon’s hands (always hands with Bresson) on the steering wheel as more sounds play out off-screen: shouts, police whistles, etc. We finally cut to an exterior shot of Yvon’s vehicle as a police car pulls alongside him. Yvon, his expression still blank, shifts the car into drive and peels out.
It’s the strangest, most subdued bank heist you’ve ever seen on film, and it is also a text book example of the idiosyncratic style of the great French director Robert Bresson. At least three quintessentially Bressonian features are on display here. First, there's Bresson’s oft-discussed approach to acting. He employed non-professional actors, whom he referred to as “models,” and trained them to perform as automatically and mechanically as possible, often using multiple takes to wear them out: the goal was for the models to act without inflection, often resulting in the stoic, passive “Bresson face.” For more discussion of Bresson’s use of models, please check out my review of “Au hasard Balthazar.”
Second, this scene offers an instructional lesson on Bresson’s revolutionary approach to sound. For Bresson, sound and image are often redundant, and if the two work together they do not necessarily reinforce each other but sometimes cancel each other out. If a sound conveys the essential meaning of the scene, there is simply no need to show a similar image as well. Therefore, when we hear the volley of gunshots and the whistles, we do not see the police shooting at the robbers, but rather Yvon’s hands as they rest limply on the steering wheel as if awaiting further instructions from their master. As for what precisely occurs at the bank, we are left to wonder; in Bresson’s view, the ear is more imaginative than the eye, and sound is not merely the bastard child of image.
Third, Bresson’s emphasis on economy and precision (“L’Argent” runs at just 81 minutes) is evident in this scene. Bresson ruthlessly stripped away all extraneous elements from his films, until he was left with only the barest essential elements required to tell the story. After Yvon speeds away, we see a brief car chase which Bresson conveys by two primary images: Yvon’s feet as they switch from the accelerator to the brake and a shot of the police car as seen in the side mirror of Yvon’s car. Cut back and forth between these two shots a few times and… there’s your car chase. It is also worth noting that this is not merely economical from an artistic point of view but from a pragmatic perspective as well - Bresson seldom worked with big budgets.
These three elements (among others) defined Bresson’s films for the bulk of his career and combined to produced one of the most distinct, hermetic, and endlessly fascinating bodies of work in all of cinema. If Bresson had not perfected these techniques (how is such a thing possible?), he had finely tuned them by the time he directed “L’Argent” (“Money”) in 1983 at the age of 82, and it was the last film the French master would ever make. Bresson, who died in 1999, intended to continue directing, but was unable to secure financing for his long-planned adaptation of the Book of Genesis and he unofficially retired by the end of the 1980s. Fortunately, Bresson’s final film is also one of his greatest.
“L’Argent” is loosely based on Tolstoy's short story “The Counterfeit Note” which also translates as “The Forged Note” or “The False Coupon.” The story begins with two young men who pass off counterfeit bills to a local photography shop. The store owners discover that the bills are forged, but don’t want to get stuck with the loss so they, in turn, pass them onto Yvon Targe, the young man who delivers heating oil to their store. After Yvon is caught with the counterfeit money, he returns to the store with the police in order to prove his innocence, but the owners pretend not to recognize him. From this point, Yvon’s fate is sealed and his situation degenerates from bad to worse to unspeakable.
“L’Argent” traces the spread of evil (flowing by the same route as capital) from its first flowering to its final violent explosion. As the counterfeit notes change hands, they leave destruction in their wake and nobody escapes fully unscathed. In the opening scene, a young man asks for a handout from his father; in the climactic scene a homicidal Yvon has only one question to ask: “Where’s the money?”
Bresson believed in predestination (or maybe not – it's a thing critics have often written but it's a lot more complex than that) and Yvon is an innocent victim fated to be laid low by circumstances beyond his control. He is not merely falsely imprisoned but is actually transformed by the system; once released from jail, he decides he might as well become the person everyone seems to think he is.
Bresson’s films are often considered to be pessimistic and grim, but “L’Argent” ramps that dark vision up to a new level. In many of Bresson’s films, the characters achieve a kind of grace or even redemption by way of their suffering, but there is little, if any, sense of redemption in “L’Argent,” the ending of which is about as bleak as you will ever see. Except maybe in “Au hasard Balthazar.” Here you can choose from two Bresson quotes: one in which he described himself as a “jolly pessimist” and another in which he rejected the term “pessimism” as applied to his films, preferring the term “lucidity.”
Like most of Bresson’s films, “L’Argent” accumulates its remarkable affective power through its puritanical restraint. Yvon remains an opaque figure with a blank expression even as he transforms from an innocent into a killer. We could easily imagine the Hollywood version of the same story with a classically-trained method actor raving and gibbering and chewing the scenery with dramatic music to underscore the transition, but Bresson does not pursue that route. Nor does he linger on any of the typical gory elements. As he does in the car chase, Bresson simply picks a few objective details and deploys them to convey an entire scene. Bresson’s tendency to elide the main action is so pronounced in “L’Argent” that even an attentive viewer might miss altogether the fact that, in one sequence, Yvon murders two hotel owners. The ending is all the more potent and unnerving because of the sense of clinical detachment cultivated by Bresson; we are all invited to consider the proceedings with the dispassionate eye of a coroner rather than as a sympathetic and involved viewer.
We do not quite know why Yvon does what he does or why he selects his victims, though it is obviously related to his unfair treatment by society. Bresson’s cinema is one of surfaces, not psychology – which is to say it's grown-up cinema. Character is revealed only through behavior, not through exposition or analysis; there are no “character moments” offered as a sop to the audience, and Yvon’s sudden decision to cross the line into violence comes as a shock as we have not been prepared for it as we might expect. Bresson provides the what; the viewer, if he or she simply must, provides the why.
The film is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. I have the old VHS released by New Yorker and the difference in image quality (even setting aside that the VHS was full screen) is like day to night. On the tape, the desk in the opening scene is dull brown and the curtains are gray; on the DVD, the desk is cherry red and the curtains much brighter. The flesh tones on the DVD really pop out as well. Of course it's no Blu-ray, and a transfer that felt like a “revelation” in 2005 is found wanting more than a decade later. Still, it's perfectly fine... until we get something better and I'm thankful that New Yorker took the effort to release some of Bresson's great work on DVD in North America.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital. I don’t think any DVD can fully preserve the quality of Bresson’s rich and textured sound tracks but this version does a more than creditable job. he music and dialogue are clearly separated, and the sound effects are well-mixed. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
The main attraction is a commentary track by critic Kent Jones who literally wrote the (BFI) book on “L’Argent.” Jones’ commentary is enjoyable not just because of his keen insights, but also because of his halting, nervous delivery filled with awkward pauses – it adds a very personal touch. Jones blends an academic approach with his obvious love for the film and delivers one of the more lucid and engaging commentary tracks I have ever heard. If anyone ever asks me for my favorite commentary track, this one would be right up there with Spinal Tap's in-character commentary.
In addition to a very short trailer, the disc also includes three short interviews: two with Bresson (6 min. and 13 min., respectively) from French television in 1983 and one very brief one (1 min, 30 sec.) with director Marguerite Duras who expresses her admiration for the great director.
Is “L'argent” the greatest final film by an esteemed director? I can't think of one definitively superior, and Bresson was indisputably still at the top of his game in his early eighties. Like most Bresson films, “L'argent” encourages multiple interpretations and a whole gamut of reactions. Even devoted members of the Bresson cult often disagree with each other about various takes: “Yes, this film is great, but you are completely wrong about the reasons why!” Which is just one small part of the pleasure of experiencing the work of a true one-of-a-kind artist.