Judge Joe Armenio would like to warn away anyone who thinks this is a biopic about the great Seattle Seahawks wide receiver.
"If I were God, I'd forgive everybody."—the caretaker
From Les Anges du Peche (The Angels of Sin) in 1943 to L'Argent (Money) in 1983, Robert Bresson (c.1907-1999) worked on the margins of the French film industry, belonging to no school, directing 13 films that remain among the most discussed and debated in all cinema. He is the quintessential auteur, in that all of his films bear his unmistakable stamp. For his detractors, that stamp marks him as an artist whose works are dry to the point of desiccation, and who is perverse in his refusal to communicate with his audience. For his supporters, though, Bresson's strange and disorienting works achieve a transcendence rare in the history of film. L'Argent was Bresson's last completed work, a severe and unsettling movie which shows that he continued on his unflinching path to the end of his productive days.
Facts of the Case
Based on a story by Leo Tolstoy called "The Forged Coupon," L'Argent begins as a group of affluent schoolboys, frustrated by their parents' refusal to give them money, use a counterfeit note at a photography shop. After the boys have left, the shop's owners realize that the note is false, and to cover their losses they pass it along to a manual laborer, Yvon (Christian Patey), as change. The boy who works as an assistant at the shop (Vincent Risterucci) learns a lesson in dishonesty from his employers and decides to pull some scams of his own. Meanwhile, Yvon's life becomes an uninterrupted series of disasters. He loses his job, and, desperate for money to support his wife and child, he commits a crime and is imprisoned. While he is in prison things go from bad to worse, and Yvon snaps, leading to a uniquely harrowing crime spree.
Describing Bresson's style to the uninitiated is a difficult task, since his priorities differ so wildly from almost every other narrative filmmaker. Bresson was wary of theatrical acting, which he felt had no place in film—he was more interested in the sheer physical presence of the people in his movies, whom he called "models," than in their acting ability, which he felt was only a distraction from the sense of reality he sought to convey. His "models," all nonprofessional actors, were instructed to drain their lines of all inflection, emotion, or personal mannerism. Bresson also paid little attention to conventions of casting. For example, Christian Patey is unconvincing as a manual laborer, but his face conveys a beautiful, melancholy quality in which Bresson is much more interested. In L'Argent, this de-dramatized style matches the relentless progress of the narrative, which suggests that these characters are not individual human beings but generalized representatives of humanity, doomed to be crushed by a cruelly indifferent society.
Bresson also was relatively unconcerned with plot, often eliding the most conventionally dramatic moments in his stories, focusing instead on action neglected by most filmmakers. In L'Argent, for example, he seems more concerned with the physical act of transferring money from hand to hand and the means by which prisoners' belongings are hauled to and from the prison than with the more overtly dramatic aspects of prison life. A focus on what Bresson doesn't care about has led many critics to label him "austere," or a "minimalist," but these terms seem inadequate to me because they neglect his films' vibrancy, their abundance of visual and aural detail, and the depth and resonance of his themes. Bresson was famous for his attention to his films' soundtracks. In L'Argent he delights in presenting the music of city life: the rhythm of each pedestrian footfall; the rush of a train; the swish of a newspaper being read. In the film's pastoral final scenes the imagery becomes more "elemental," as Kent Jones puts it in his commentary, more tied to nature—there is a haunting beauty in the way Bresson shows nuts being pulled from a tree or potatoes wrenched from the earth. This focus on physical realities is disorienting because it is so rare in movies, but for those who respond to Bresson, the cumulative effects built up in a careful rhythm over the course of a film can be overwhelming.
Bresson was then neither a stylistic nor a thematic "minimalist"; he was always concerned with big ideas such as the nature of human freedom, the possibility of religious transcendence, and the relationship of the individual to society. Diary of a Country Priest (1951), A Man Escaped (1956), and Pickpocket (1959) are all somber (dare I say "austere"?) films, but these early works, more overtly than the later ones, suggest some hope for positive connection, both to other humans and to God. As Jones points out, in his later films Bresson became increasingly interested in the effects that society has on the young, the ways in which it shapes and ultimately defeats them. In these later movies the possibility of transcendence shrinks, apparent only in ambiguous gestures such as the title donkey's death scene in Au Hasard, Balthazar, or the haunting shot of birds flying above the final massacre in Lancelot of the Lake. L'Argent suggests obliquely that Yvon has retained some sense of humanity, but only after he has committed the most horrific of crimes. The film's final sequence, in which he encounters a family of "physical and emotional cripples," as Jones puts it, run without complaint by a brittle and damaged but deeply compassionate woman who offers Yvon refuge, is among the deepest and ultimately most devastating passages in all of cinema.
L'Argent is about a problem usually construed as rooted in the social and historical makeup of particular societies—the misdistribution of wealth and the ways in which the lower classes bear the burden of social and economic inequality. Bresson's concerns, however, are primarily existential, dealing with the problems of free will and dehumanization. Although the film is set in early 1980s France, he simply transfers the basic plot line of Tolstoy's story (which was set in czarist Russia) to a new place. There is no reference to specific ways in which the French class system works. The problem Bresson is dramatizing is characteristic of any modern, money-driven society; it is notable that the hotel where Yvon commits murder for the first time is called the "Hotel Moderne."
New Yorker Films' DVD presentation is characteristically stellar. The transfer retains the original 1.63:1 aspect ratio, and while one must see Bresson's films in a theater to understand their full visual and sonic depth, the DVD does as good a job as possible in capturing his meticulously crafted universe. More than most filmmakers, Bresson needs to be contextualized, and Kent Jones (Associate Director of Programming, Film Society of Lincoln Center, frequent contributor to Film Comment, and author of a book on L'Argent) does an excellent job in his audio commentary, paying close attention to Bresson's individual choices, making it clear how the director's occasionally perplexing decisions with regard to framing and editing relate to his larger vision. Jones is also determined to rescue Bresson from some of his admirers, who see him as an artist whose work so transcends that of other filmmakers that he need not be considered within the context of film history as a whole. Rather, Jones presents Bresson as an artist who enjoyed film himself (he was a fan of James Bond movies) and who can benefit from comparison with other filmmakers. Jones's comparison of Bresson and Hitchcock's obsession with physical work is especially interesting. Unfortunately, Jones spends way too much time hemming and hawing and searching for words. When asked to give a DVD commentary, it would seem to be a good idea to have a written text prepared to prevent this sort of stammering. As it was, most of the time I spent listening to the commentary was also spent waving my arm in the universal gesture for "c'mon, spit it out, buddy."
Also included on the DVD are two TV interviews with Bresson from the time of the film's premiere at Cannes in 1983. Bresson was, as one of the interviewers says, "a most reticent and unusual person," and fans will be grateful for a rare chance to see the man himself. In his late 70s, he is sharp and vigorous, chatty, slightly combative, with a full head of slightly wild white hair. The interview with French station TF1 lasts about six minutes. In it, Bresson discusses why he thinks theatrical acting is inappropriate in film, and the "cinematographic superiority of sound to image." The TSR interview is more substantial at about 13 minutes, and here the director discusses his working methods in some detail. He values, he says, spontaneity above all; he storyboards and writes all of his films in advance, but shoots without strict adherence to his plans, adjusting to circumstances and realizing that films are largely "the product of chance." Along the same lines he praises film for its "perishability," saying "I don't believe in the immortality of works of art." The final extra of note is a minute-and-a-half clip from an interview with writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras, in which she calls Bresson her favorite director and discusses the impact that his work has had on her.
As Jones says in his commentary, this is not the sort of film that one picks up from Blockbuster on an idle Saturday night. To watch a Bresson film is to enter an often difficult world, and it's not an experience to which all will warm easily. His movies tend to inspire either rapturous admiration or bored puzzlement; as you can surely tell by now, I belong to the former group, but if you belong to the latter, there's little I can say that will change your mind. Anyone who considers himself or herself a film buff should deal with Bresson's work at some point, though, and the DVD of L'Argent, with its intelligent supplements, would be an excellent place to start.
Not at all guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Audio Commentary by Bresson Scholar Kent Jones
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