“Oh money, God incarnate, what wouldn’t we do for you?”
Robert Bresson’s 1983 film L’argent is based on Leo Tolstoy’s 1911 novel, “The Forged Coupon.” Asked at a 1983 Cannes Film Festival press conference why he tended to adapt the work of Russian authors (Dostoyevsky’s work alone served as the impetus for no less than four Bresson films), the rather crabby director said they offered a “profound truth.” Sure enough, philosophical complexity and perceptive veracity mark the best of Bresson’s work, L’argent included, so that association is clear. But from this, there also comes a deeply distressing hopelessness, a moral and emotional dejection, something that likewise casts its cloud over Bresson’s piercing portraits of humanity. Yet there is often some form of redemption, a glorious sacrifice, or spiritual epiphany. As Bresson argues, “There can be no hope without despair.”
In L’argent, the despair derives from pervasive greed and petty crime. The film’s trajectory is guided by knowingly and unknowingly forged currency; some are aware of the sham, some are oblivious. What starts as one counterfeit note, two purveyors, and a commercial victim, spreads to several bills, multiple actors, and personal lives in ruin. There are many characters at play in this circuitous drama—among them, two students, the owner of a photography shop, a bank robber, and a kind, elderly woman—but the two most prominently recurring individuals are Yvon (Christian Patey), an innocent blue-collar worker who loses his job, his freedom, and his family, and Lucien (Vincent Risterucci), a young employee at the photo shop whose curious course passes through the thoroughfares of bitter larceny and kind generosity.
As per Bresson’s characteristic construction, the straightforward yet willfully intermittent storyline doesn’t so much unfold as a narrative scroll as it gradually materializes block by block. His narrative ellipses omit or downplay key moments of tension and conventional drama—murder, a suicide attempt, a burglary—glossing over them altogether or alluding to their existence in conversation only. Transitions are abrupt (as if cut by a guillotine, according to James Quandt), and the links of this character chain are at once connected and wholly removed. The detachment is magnified by Bresson’s fragmented compositions, with characters and objects cut off in oblique directions, and his use of “models”—a label he assigned to his nonprofessional actors—whose blank, expressionless faces correspond to their equally deliberate manner, suggesting this dual engagement (they do interact with each other) and distance (it’s seldom on an emotional level).
While there is one notable, and notably brief, burst of standard action (a remarkably calm heist and a characteristically Bressonian car chase), most of the drama, as important as it is with regards to character motivation, is enacted with muted banality. There is legal and interpersonal gravity to what these characters do, but Bresson’s demonstrative rigor keeps the dynamic impact at bay. As Adrian Martin comments in his Criterion Collection essay on L’argent, the aloof characterizations of this film stand out from much of Bresson’s prior work: “[G]one in L’argent is the psychological interiority that marked Bresson heroes like the country priest (Claude Laydu), or Fontaine (François Leterrier) chipping away alone in his cell in A Man Escaped…. Something colder and more despairing has occurred: it is not the case that Bresson denies us access to the ‘inside’ of his characters, but rather that there is no longer any ‘deep’ mind, heart, or soul to access.” The phony money seems to take on a life of its own, conforming to the provisional gimmick of starting with one character and moving to the next, but Bresson ultimately forgoes this device and circles back, reacquainting us with those so far introduced. Generally, though, a vast majority of L’argent’s second half sticks with the devastating plight of Yvon. Entwined by appalling behavior, a mutual capacity for deception, and the repercussions that may or may not develop from their cruelty, those under Bresson’s caustic microscope form a vast social portrait tarnished by avarice and the pitiless realities of happenstance. Bresson’s trademark attention to hands in close-up and gestures performed with severe precision still exist in L’argent, but here, the hands are not reaching for elusive human contact but for property and cash—the focus is on transaction not interaction.
Martin cites French director Olivier Assayas who, “once declared, with forgivable extravagance: ‘I still consider Bresson the greatest filmmaker ever; I have complete admiration for every single frame of his films, every single moment.’” The “greatest filmmaker ever” is presumably the extravagant part, because what Assayas suggests in terms of Bresson’s extraordinary sense of composition being continually worthy of praise and appreciation is no exaggeration. It’s what Martin himself says is Bresson’s “quest for refinement … distillation, concentration, purification.” Controlled and diluted of nonessentials, his images are impressed into the celluloid like a meticulous engraving, where its rigidity produces visual and emotive impact. Bresson often spoke of the careful relationship between sound and image, using each with incomparable exactitude. In an interview with Bresson, included on the new Criterion disc for L’argent, Michel Ciment comments on the “formally beautiful” imagery of Bresson’s work. Usually, this is true, especially in his black and white work prior to 1967. With L’argent, though, there is an aesthetic coldness, with unfeeling colors skimmed from an unattractive and sickly palette.
Bresson refuted claims of his supposed Jansenist alignment (though the stress on predestination seems to apply at least to his cinematic worldview), but Martin rightly notes the “deliberately machinelike and glacial” nature of L’argent, “like a relentless, inexorable contraption of doom.” There is some ethical progress made, some hints of decency, but even these are qualified as Bresson reconciles forgiveness and guilt with the deeds that necessitate such a response. Like Michel in Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), Lucien, for example, testifies to his own morality and order; the shop owner wronged by his actions sheds a tear at the boy’s redemptive reversal, though the young man had to commit crimes to get to that point. Or take Yvon, who, following his downward spiral, capped by misplaced passions and stunning barbarity, concludes with a fated confession, an admirable gesture but one so hasty it begs the question, what then was the point? Unlike the Bresson films alluded to earlier, there is little expectant grace in L’argent. From start to finish, it overwhelms with tragic sadness: the sadness of its imprudent characters, sadness for their victims, sadness for the human condition, and sadness for Bresson’s ultimate vision.
After twelve feature films, films that truly are singular achievements, L’argent became Robert Bresson’s final production. It was a consummate dénouement that garnered him the Best Director award at Cannes, which he shared with another inimitable artist, Andrei Tarkovsky. He never planned for it to be his last picture, though, and indeed lived until age 98, passing away in 1999 (a long-gestating picture based on the book of Genesis was always in the works). Nevertheless, it’s a fitting finale. As Quandt points out in a curious video essay for Criterion, where he literally goes “A to Z” discussing the film’s Bressonian motifs—“D” for “Doors,” “C” for “Color,” “N” for “Nature,” etc.—L’argent is a suitable summation of so much that came before it. The recurrent themes and stylistic emphases take some tested critical reasoning, and perhaps Quandt pushes some of his analysis to match every letter (“X” is for “The Axe,” Yvon’s weapon of choice, while “Z” is for “Zarathustra,” as in Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke…”), but fully comprehending every aspect of his work was never Bresson’s intention. “It’s not about understanding,” he tells the Cannes crowd, “but about feeling, which is different.” “I can’t explain a film,” he adds, “A film explains itself.”