L’Argent (1983)

*. I suppose the one thing that everyone knows about Robert Bresson is that he’s the author/auteur of a moral vision. The exact nature of that vision is harder to pin down.
*. Bresson was Catholic (though he may have considered himself a “Christian atheist”), and that’s something more in evidence in his earlier films than in his later work. His models in L’Argent were Russian, a story by Tolstoy and Doystoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but he takes all the religion out of both sources. I don’t think there are any references to religion in L’Argent aside from the old woman’s expression of her faith in forgiveness. Yves doesn’t even bother seeing a chaplain while in prison. Where’s Claude Laydu when someone really needed him?
*. Bresson didn’t want to bring religion into the story because he was indicting a contemporary sense of social malaise, which is grounded either in a lack of faith or the worship of a false God (money). “Tolstoy talks about God and the gospel. I didn’t want to follow in his footsteps because this film was made against the careless indifference of people today, who think only about themselves and their families.”

*. I think that indictment of careless indifference is powerfully made. L’Argent is a giant tragedy whose impetus is only a tiny nudge given by people acting on a whim. But underlying it there is a religious, and I think Catholic, moral vision.
*. Here’s a passage from T. S. Eliot’s essay on Baudelaire: “So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good; so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing: at least, we exist. It is true to say that the glory of man is his capacity for salvation; it is also true to say that his glory is his capacity for damnation.”
*. This idea that even a very bad person may be better off than the common herd of human cattle if they are only man enough to be damned, because such a “capacity for damnation” at least means that they have a spiritual dimension (no matter how corrupted), is something that crops up in a lot of preachy religious writers, from Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky through the High Church Eliot to Graham Greene and Walker Percy. It’s not a point of view I share, but I can see where it’s coming from. And if you see echoes of Yves in Jacek from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing, well, that’s part of the same (Catholic) religious vision.
*. But this is an idea that almost has to be made in the negative. That is, a lack of evidence of redemption, or even redeeming qualities, is what establishes Yvon as worth saving. Bresson was concerned that at the end of L’Argent he wasn’t able “to dwell on Yvon’s atonement and the idea of redemption . . . but at that point the film’s rhythm would not allow it.”
*. I don’t know what Bresson means by not dwelling Yvon’s atonement. He felt that he had slipped the idea into the ending but I have trouble seeing it. Because Yvon confesses? But given Yvon’s total blankness (a lack of emoting that Bresson demanded from his “models”) what can we read into that? He might have finally become weary of life. That strikes me as more likely than his now feeling sorry for anything. Like those who caused his downfall, he is now simply indifferent to others.

*. A lot depends on how you read that final shot. I’ll admit I don’t have a good explanation for it. Put another way, I’m not sure what Bresson meant.
*. In brief: a group of bystanders wait outside the door of a café, looking inside while the police march Yvon out in handcuffs. As Yvon passes by they don’t turn their heads to watch him go but remain staring into the now empty café, looking at nothing.
*. When interviewed, Bresson had this to say: “Perhaps it’s too symbolic, but I love those passersby staring into space. Once there was everything, now there is nothing.” Too symbolic? But what is it symbolic of?
*. I don’t know. But I do think it ties in to something done throughout the film. I think the crowd outside the café are looking into the same void that Bresson’s camera often does, with an intent focus but missing something that it only just sees part of, or that they can only hear off-screen. They’re looking at the sound of thunder, having missed the lightning.
*. An example of the kind of thing I mean is the scene where the rotten kids escape into the subway. We first see them running down the stairs and exiting from our (the camera’s) sight. Given Bresson’s attitude toward camera work, we don’t follow them. We remain staring at the stairs. And staring, at nothing. We then cut to a shot of the subway platform as the train is just leaving. In other words, we missed all the action we were supposedly following. And still the camera sits, staring at nothing, just like the bystanders at the end. Are we still waiting for something? Or only taking in a sort of ghostly after-image, a mental reconstruction of what we know just happened but didn’t see?

*. Such a technique strikes me as being akin to those word games or tricks of the eye where only a limited amount of information is given but we mentally fill in the blanks and “see” what isn’t there. I think the same sort of thing is going on with the overlapping sound between cuts. Bresson is using editing to create an imaginary film in our heads. I think it’s possible that a lot of people think they saw things in L’Argent that weren’t actually on screen. Of course this goes for obvious things like the violent murders, which are all elided, but would probably go for other things as well. Do we ever see the face of the girl whose ass we stare at as she’s sitting on the couch?
*. The faces of the actors have a similar role. They’re blank slates that we project on. What do they say to each other? It’s hard to remember a line from this film, and that’s at least partly on purpose. As Bresson put it, “no one in L’Argent is acting. That’s the reason it goes so fast: what they say is not what matters.” Apparently he wanted to film a version of Genesis as his next project, and do it in Hebrew not for “realism” but because it was a language no one would understand.

*. You could call all this “pure cinema,” and I think that’s a fair way of looking at it. It’s also formalist, with the compositions having a silent solidity that often appears posed and painterly. There are no strange angles or deep fields or even much in the way of camera movement, and yet the camera is not inarticulate, it has a point of view. Hence all those headless bodies. Hence the lingering look at the girl’s bum.
*. Bresson’s formality was the product of an impressionistic theory of film. “More and more, what I seek to do, to the point that it was practically a method on L’Argent, is to convey my impression. What dictates the shot is the impression of the thing, not the thing. We are the ones who make the real. Each individual has his own.” Well, yes, but if the shot is conveying the director’s impression then we in the audience have to follow along. We aren’t totally free to make our own reality.
*. If the impression of the thing is what counts than an image (or a sound effect) may continue to have that after-image effect I mentioned earlier. So perhaps that final shot is taken from somewhere inside the theatre, with the backs of all those heads in front of us staring into what might be a screen stood on end.
*. It’s a technically accomplished film, but it strikes me as having an anti-humanistic vision. That may, indeed, be the point of the technique. Yvon is a subject for analysis, a case study. What I think Bresson may be saying is that such an approach has its limitations. Does Yvon have the capacity for damnation? What image of him is left when he walks toward us, and drops out of the screen?

6 thoughts on “L’Argent (1983)

  1. Tom Moody

    Bresson is a gap in my film education that I’ve started to fill, partly inspired by this post. I’m working my way up to L’Argent, starting with Au Hasard Balthazar (amazing — this should never have worked, but it does) and Pickpocket (superb — I see why Paul Schrader likes it). Next up: Mouchette.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      You’ll have soon seen more Bresson than I have. I like him, but I have a theory that people have tastes in movies that are kind of like taste in food. I really like Italian film (even the trash) and I’ve always been a bit cool toward the French masters. I also like Italian food and I’m not as fond of French cuisine. I know that sounds flaky but I wonder if there might be something behind it.

  2. Tom Moody

    An essay I’ll probably never write is that for all their formal beauty and stately procession of images, there’s something a little “wack” in Bresson. I mean, a donkey as a main character (in a non-Disney movie). The balletic sequence of wallet-stealing techniques and weird sexual tension of the thefts in Pickpocket. Mouchette has a bumper car scene that is an explosion of kinetic energy in an otherwise grim film about the corrosive effects of poverty. I overextended the free trial period on Filmstruck because I want to see a few more of these!

  3. Tom Moody

    Rather than contemplating the big abstractions served up by religion — evil, good, salvation, damnation — Bresson might be questioning In L’Argent what it means to be “merely” moral or ethical in a materialistic culture. He hasn’t really given us enough to go on, though. The film resembles a police sketch of a moral problem with details missing. What are we to conclude from Yves’ transition from gainfully employed truck driver, husband, and father to cold-blooded multiple ax slayer? Some of what happens to him is random bad luck, some of it is societal indifference, some of it is due to his own choices. Of these choices, a few aren’t very smart (e.g., choosing petty crime for a livelihood after losing a job); others are (rejecting his previous accuser’s plan of prison escape). Sometimes we think he’s going to “tough it out” but then he shows an inclination to suicide. We know nothing about Yves’s story prior to the events of the film that might have contributed to this ticking time bomb.

    I would contrast this film (unfavorably) with Mouchette. There, Bresson gives us all we need to know: a laundry list of events of unfairness, bad luck, and ongoing slights encountered by an impoverished waif, that eventually prove too much even for this plucky character who has earned our sympathy. Her final solution is both logical and heartbreaking. I don’t necessarily have to “care about” Yves in L’Argent, but I know so little about him I ultimately must project into the blank spaces and make up my own story.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      This approach of psychological minimalism or blankness is actually one that I’ve found gets adopted in a number of fictional portraits of killers in fiction and film. The author or director could go in the direction of intense psychological introspection (I guess Raskolnikov would be the archetype of this) or go in the other direction and present a moral and psychological blank. The point in the latter case may be that the killer has no inner life but is just a psychopath or killing machine, or that there is simply no figuring out what’s going on. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is an example of this approach. I think Bresson might want us to meditate on what is Yvon has lost or is without. I’m not sure though. As you say, the very blankness allows for a good deal of interpretation.

  4. Tom Moody

    Sorry, I typed “Yves” meaning “Yvon.” Bresson does “want us to meditate on what Yvon has lost or is without,” I think — well put. There’s the chain of circumstances presented by the movie but also how an ordinary individual copes with them. (Not everyone is a latent serial killer but some might be!) Another question, I suppose, is how much of the focus is Yvon and how much is the other characters interacting with the counterfeit bills. I haven’t read the Tolstoy story. Are their stories important or are they just plot mechanisms to put Yvon where Bresson wants? Sometimes, watching these characters walk in and out of each other’s lives, I thought I was watching Bunuel’s Phantom of Liberte — partly it was the time period and Paris locations but also a feeling of absurdity and randomness to the proceedings. Of course that’s another effect of living in a post-Christian atheistic world (or so Bresson could be telling us). Without God there’s just money and happenstance.


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