Bresson's films, never upbeat at the best of times, became increasingly pessimistic, and this final film shows his view of the corrupting effect of money. Based on a Tolstoy story updated to 1980s Paris, it shows how the passing of a forged note turns an apparently honest young man into a mass murderer; this may sound melodramatic, but seeing the film it becomes wholly believable. Bresson's spare and elliptical film-making technique is as fresh as ever; no shot is unnecessary or wasted, and you have to work hard to fill in the gaps, as it were (a variant, perhaps, on Godard's jump-cuts). The effect on the attentive viewer is sheer exhileration. As usual, Bresson eschews psychological motivation; for example, one character who is shown as a downright crook is suddenly revealed to have given away much of his money to charity. Nobody is totally bad in Bresson's universe; this can be interpreted in a Christian way by saying that God's grace breaks through to even the most hardened sinner. You don't actually see any of the violence; it's all implied (or happens off-screen). A brilliant film, and a fitting conclusion to a brilliant film-making career.
L'Argent is commonly hailed as Bresson's parting masterpiece, but sadly it's seriously undermined by atrocious performances and a completely unconvincing last reel. Which is a shame, because there's much to admire here. His adaptation of a Tolstoy short story about the disastrous consequences for the innocent recipient of a forged banknote has for the most part a terrific sense of narrative, exposing the way petty crime can have major moral repercussions throughout the social scale, with the rich able to buy or lie their way out of trouble. But oh, those performances! Bresson made a career out of soliciting convincing performances out of amateurs, so you have to wonder just why they are nearly all so very terrible here. Not only can they not act or give even the vaguest impression of life, intelligent or otherwise, but they move so mechanically - mannequin-like with back straight and arms down their sides like lead weights as they try to remember to hit their marks - that you wonder if Bresson actually intended the effect. Whether he did or not, it's like watching outtakes from a public information film at times, or the Swedish phrase book sketch from Monty Python. A couple of performers get by, but Christian Patey is so physically and verbally awkward in the lead that it's painful watching his progress, but in all the Wong ways.
Yet for 70 minutes at least the strength of the narrative and Bresson's spare, economical telling lend it a relentless forward momentum, manage to hold you. Tragically, the film's resolution fails to convince in any way, turning its initially fundamentally decent protagonist into a money-hungry thrill-killer not as a logical consequence of his experiences but purely as a plot contrivance to prove a point and provide an ending. The final (offscreen) mass murder simply seems tacked-on sensationalism, especially considering the absurd set of circumstances that places him in the bosom of the family he kills.
A good film but ultimately a frustrating and unrewarding one for all its strong points.
Robert Bresson's 1983 film L'Argent was his final feature film, and it represents one of the most sobering and uncompromising takes on 'modern society' ever to have reached the cinema screen. The film won the Best Director prize for Bresson at the 1983 Cannes film festival. The film's narrative is actually based on a Tolstoy novel, The Forged Coupon, written in 1911. The story follows innocent delivery man Yvon (Christian Patey) who becomes ensnared in a tragic and downward spiral of events, whose origins are triggered by a chance event, the passing on (unbeknown to him) by Yvon of a forged banknote, and its subsequent discovery by the police.
In L'Argent, Bresson uses his by now trademark style of minimalist cinema (static camera shots, long takes held on the camera's subject, sparse dialogue, no music, camera close-ups on legs, midriffs, closed doors, feet on accelerators, etc) to tell a devastating tale of guilt, deception, hypocrisy, denial and, at least partial, redemption. As became Bresson's trademark, he again employs a cast of first-time actors to great effect, and particular praise should go to Christian Patey (playing Yvon) and Vincent Risterucci playing Lucien, the photoshop worker whose deception is the cause of the problems that eventually beset Yvon. My other observation on the male cast Bresson has assembled is the remarkable physical similarity between them - it is almost as if Bresson is depicting a modern human race of androids, all motivated by common ambition (of which the key one here is money).
The first two-thirds of the film use the typical Bressonian approach (rather like his earlier masterpiece Pickpocket) of devising an intricate plot, whereby the principal object of the narrative (here, the forged banknote) is passed between numerous characters, some crucial to the storyline, others not. It is from this sequence of events that Bresson then homes in on the key characters, Yvon and Lucien, around which the core of the film is based. The final third of the film, charting the period after Yvon has been released from prison, began, for me, to rather meander, until Bresson brings all the narrative strands and themes together for the film's devastating finale.
I think this film can be regarded as something of a retelling of Pickpocket, updated for an even more cynical modern world, and, whilst it is not, for me, on a par with the earlier film, it still provides a fitting finale to the career of one of the most original auteurs to have ever worked in cinema.
The DVD also contains two very interesting interviews with Bresson (albeit with some overlap between the two). He talks mainly about his love of spontaneity in filmmaking, after having had a brief go at Jean Renoir(!), and before praising a James Bond film!
on 14 July 2008
It is indeed rare that such wooden acting can be excusable. In the case of L'Argent it is, because somehow, and don't ask me how, the film gets by without emotional performances. Indeed, it would be an entirely different film if the actors were any good. As it is they go through the motions in such an expressionless way, that I am convinced Bresson wanted it that way. Bad actors usually over act not under act. These are simply pawns in a game, moved from scene to scene by the director's invisible hand. It is a touch of genius if you ask me, because as the audience I found myself having to emote for the actors, to take their place so to speak. In Bresson's inimitable style, where each shot seems to take on a moral weight which is passed on to the next shot and the next and the next, and where it is clear he is not aiming for realism but more for a kind of sparse imitation of what is going on (see the scene in the cafe where Yvon pushes the waiter), the wooden acting works.
I don't discount the possibility that Bresson simply couldn't get good acting performances out of his cast this time around. But even if that is the case, the film works. And how! It created in me a sensation I compare to that of being in the presence of a frigid and ungiving lover who is so beautiful, her presence alone is enough to sustain the relationship.
on 19 August 2007
The previous review is to my mind inexplicable, as 'L'Argent' is clearly one of Bresson's finest films and one of the greatest and most harrowing movies of all time.
His previous film, 'Le Diable Probablement', was flawed by Bresson's uncertainty about the milieu he was writing about. Some of the same peculiar innocence is evident here, but the emotional power and sheer intensity of the film more than makes up for this viewer's occasional amusement at Bresson's almost casual shorthand for the Parisian underworld.
An upper-class French kid passes a forged banknote in order to buy a camera. The shopkeeper notices the forgery, but decides to pass it on rather than inform the police. A blue-collar worker unwittingly takes it in change, and is then arrested when he tries to pay with it in a bar. From then on it just gets worse and worse.
The final reel is not absurd or unbelievable at all, but has a very rare example of successful 'dream logic' - on his release from prison, the hapless deliveryman has been abandoned by his wife and turns to crime just to survive. It ends up in a shocking murder that releases the pent-up frustration, anger and despair of the rest of the film.
'L'Argent' is not unsuccessful at all, but the work of a master. Bresson knew what he was doing when he used non-professional actors and the ones in this film are spot on. This is quite simply one of the greatest, eeriest and most moving films I have ever seen.
Robert Bresson's 1983 Tolstoy adaptation L'Argent (Money) is the director's magnificent final film - a masterpiece to set beside his very best work of the 50s and 60s. It won a prize at Cannes together with Andrei Tarkovsky's Nostalghia and marks a wonderful return to form following the gray misanthropy of The Devil, Probably (1977). L'Argent is no less misanthropic, but the adaptation of Tolstoy's wonderful short story `The Forged Coupon' (conceived in 1902) is so skillful that our breath is literally taken away by the depth, the intellectual profundity and the lucid depiction of how money is at the base of all evil and how it has become a false God in the modern world.
Put basically, Bresson's concern was always with the basic metaphysics underpinning the human condition - the reasons we live, the factors that propel human life from birth to death and beyond. As I have outlined in my other Bresson reviews his aesthetic is informed by Catholicism, in his case the peculiar French strain of predestinarian Jansenism. In a Bresson film protagonists function in any given narrative to fulfill whatever has been predestined for them to fulfill. They have no free will of their own and usually the film charts a journey which becomes in effect an unknowing search for spiritual redemption, for grace. Conventional character psychology has no place in a Bresson work - it doesn't matter what happens between life and death, the result will be the same - such is the nature of predestination. Throughout the protagonists will be `acted on' from on high as they are guided towards their fate.
In all Bresson's films up until Mouchette (1967), grace is always found. The protagonists may suffer greatly, but through good means or foul they always achieve a state of redemption. In all his color films from Une femme douce (1969) onwards however, though the characters are acted on from on high and are still fulfilling their already decided destiny, grace is withdrawn and the protagonists plunge into a kind of nihilistic abyss. It is as if Bresson withdraws any hope he ever had for the improvement of mankind as he demonstrates with a ruthless intellectual rigor how man has created his own fall.
Both Lancelot du Lac (1974) and The Devil, Probably embody this completely, the first to great effect through the use of myth and the second with less success as a one-dimensional misanthropic harangue. L'Argent takes us back to the crime and punishment of Pickpocket (1959) and a simple comparison between the two illustrates the shift towards negativity in Bresson's worldview. Pickpocket's main character Michel goes to prison to gain his redemption as granted by Jeanne in the film's final confessional sequence. Redemption also awaits Yvon Targe (the main character of L'Argent) who loses everything, axes a whole family to death in the name of spiritual release and gives himself over to imprisonment and possible capital punishment. Except there is one important difference namely in the nature of the `God' they give themselves up to. In Pickpocket, God is clearly a spiritual presence. Jeanne is the name of the patron saint of the French Catholic Church and it's clear that Michel is given a chance to wipe his slate clean and start his life afresh as a good God-fearing Catholic - therein lies his grace. In L'Argent, money is posited as the new `God made visable' (as one character calls it) and it's clear that for Bresson the modern world is one where the material existence of God has overtaken His spiritual existence. Man exists at the end of the 20th century only to create capital and that is what lies at the bottom of the rotten nature of society which clearly Bresson is disenchanted with. L'Argent systematically demonstrates how the new God of money establishes a garden where the 7 deadly sins (of lust, gluttony, sloth, wrath, envy and pride) flourish at the expense of the 7 Catholic virtues (of chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility). This is most clearly shown by all the characters lying to each other out of everyday neccessity - son to mother, mother to father, employee to employer, sworn in court witness to sworn in jury, and so on right the way through to the film's final violent epiphany. Small wonder then that grace disappears from the equasion and Targe's 'redemption' proves to be heavily ironic.
The removal of grace from Bresson's worldview can also be seen very clearly by comparing the Tolstoy story with the film. I strongly recommend viewers read the book for themselves (it can be downloaded free at Project Guttenberg and read within a couple of hours). The point of departure for both Tolstoy and Bresson is exactly the same. They seek to depict the old adage that money is the root of all evil. They both start off with a scene where a boy demands an advance on his allowance from his father. The father refuses, and the boy visits a friend who shows him a forged coupon (in the film, a bank note) which they cash in at a photo supply shop where they buy a cheap frame. The owner of the shop is angry that his wife has accepted the forged note and then proceeds to pass it (and two other forged notes that have come his way) on to the serviceman delivering energy (in the book firewood, in the film gas). The serviceman is later caught in a restaurant, charged with passing on counterfeit money and sent to trial. In both book and film the photo shop assistant perjures himself in court by refusing to admit he recognizes the serviceman.
From this point the book and the film diverge. Where the film has the serviceman become a driver for a bank robbery and shows him going to prison, the book has the serviceman become a horse thief who is eventually killed by another man. It is this second man who is sent to prison. The character of Yvon Targe in the film is therefore a composite of these two characters. The book introduces a number of other characters connected in the chain reaction the passing on of the forged coupon causes, but Bresson chooses to delete most of them. In the book we are introduced to an old woman, a Christian who influences a lame tailor. Bresson excises all Christian faith from his old woman who is shown as simply a poor old soul carrying the burden of her family. The axing of the family (following the killing of the innkeeper and his wife) are equally shocking in both book and film, but where Bresson simply finishes the film with the man giving himself up to the police, the book goes on to depict how the man reflects deeply on the old woman's words to him (which Bresson cuts): "Oh, what a great sin! How can you! Have mercy on yourself. To destroy somebody's soul...and worse, your own!" These words reverberate around his mind forcing him to confess his crimes to the police. He remains wracked with guilt until he is healed in prison by the Christian teachings of the very same lame tailor who the old woman had so impressed. Most important is the long quote from the Bible (Matthew 25:31) concerning the Sermon of the Mount and then the relating of Christ crucified on Calvary between two thieves. The murderer swallows the lessons about sharing brotherly love and that even a bad man like himself can go to paradise if he mends his ways. Tolstoy then goes on to have him become a kind of holy man who inspires and `cures' the characters introduced earlier in the book - the photo supply shop assistant who gives his money to the poor, his old employers who receive a check from him having been bankrupted by the theft (this is retained by Bresson) and finally even the father and the son from the story's beginning who are reunited at the very end just because the son happened to have contact with the 'holy man' because of his job.
Quite clearly the Tolstoy book is an essay (a Biblical sermon even) on the evils of money which can be defeated through the adoption of Christian faith even if it attacks the "pseudo-piety and hypocrisy of organized religion" itself. Grace is therefore an irremovable eternal presence in Tolstoy's world. Bresson sees things quite differently. Clearly in L'Argent money has become the new (false) God and modern man's complete devotion to it leads to the destruction of mankind where the attainment of grace simply becomes impossible. The actions of the boys at the beginning leads with inexorable logic to the lying of all the characters in the film, even under oath in a court of law, and to the ruin of an innocent man who goes to prison, loses his family and any hope of social rehabilitation. Crucially Bresson retains the Christian sermon in the prison which he places before the killings, but instead of Targe being led to the light, it simply passes him by without notice. While the priest delivers his sermon in Latin (a language nobody can understand!) the prisoners simply trade goods behind their backs while Targe talks to the ex-shop assistant Lucien. Targe leaves prison demoralized and with nowhere to go. He has faith in one thing only - money. Money is the name of his God and the sole reason why he embarks on a killing spree.
In this film, Targe takes on the attributes of a typical Bressonian protagonist by simply putting one foot in front of the other to fulfill his predestined fate eschewing free will in the process. But where the God watching and overseeing the main characters of A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, Mouchette and even the donkey Balthazar (in Au hasard Balthazar ) ensures they all receive the benefit of light at the end of their journey, the God watching and overseeing the characters of his color films is false and so the end is one of total darkness. In L'Argent Bresson takes Tolstoy's Biblical parable and turns it on its head as if to demonstrate how devoid of spiritual values and how obsessed with materialism the world had become between the publication of the book in 1902 and the making of his film in 1983.
Bresson deploys his usual drab mise-en-scène, amateur actors (termed `models') and carefully framed elliptical shots (courtesy of his regular cameraman Pasqualino De Santis) which point downwards showing the barest details necessary for us to get the point in each scene. The action moves along with astonishing swiftness focusing ruthlessly on theme rather than character. As with all of Bresson's films we have the uncomfortable feeling of looking at the characters' inner being or `soul' rather than regarding them as characters in a film. L'Argent therefore provokes us into asking ourselves awkward questions about our own lives and the society which surrounds us. Targe undergoes the transformation from innocent man to axe murderer in 82 minutes in the smoothest manner possible. Are our spiritual values or materialistic desires any different from his? If we lost our family, our livelihood, our very claim on existence, mightn't we also be led down a similar path? L'Argent is a deeply disquieting essay on the state of the human condition today and represents Robert Bresson at his most brilliantly incisive. It is essential viewing.
Artificial Eye's DVD presentation here is very good. The pictures (aspect ratio 16:9 - 1.66:1) are clear with the colors well saturated while the Dolby Digital 2.0 sound is as true as you could wish for. The disc comes with two short but interesting interviews with Bresson himself and a brief reaction by Marguerite Duras.
Bresson uses film as a medium for a particular style of moral enquiry unlike anyone else; for this alone he deserves attention, especially when a real sense of our spiritual existence is so present. The plane between the concrete and the immaterial is fascinatingly explored. So little is shown that it at times feels like looking at one door handle and then another - he is reluctant to show characters' faces at times when other directors certainly would, presumably because he feels they are leading us into some kind of picturesque way of looking that distracts from the moral shape of what is being conveyed. In a sense it seems as if not much is happening, but in fact a great deal happens without any of the emphasis we usually expect. The acting is, as others have said, wooden, but again this helps achieve the detachment which allows the spiritual to shine through. At least I think this is what is happening - I don't feel completely sure with Bresson but this is one of the reasons I keep being drawn back into his world. He seems to be asking all the questions about the inner life of a person that we really should ask. In L'argent the fate of the main character is starkly given, and I for one don't really understand the abruptness with which he turns into a murderer. Nor could I quite understand the hotel reception scene, where we see too little to be sure quite where we are - certain details didn't quite add up with regard to the lamp and the desk. I watched it several times and in the end gave up, as what happens after this eludes my comprehension too. Nevertheless I do feel the moral strength of what he has achieved in this film and put my confusions down to my own partial understanding. I shall definitely keep coming back to it from time to time to see if I can get further.
on 26 January 2015
Amazing film about money. The photography is incredible
on 24 August 2007
Too many reviewers here abuse the reviews pages to attack other reviewers who do not share their opinions as if there was only right or wrong when it comes to art. They should talk about the film not each other. Yes I am guilty too but I see so much of this I had to comment.
The film itself is quite poor to my eyes. Bad acting and a bad ending are the main reasons. The short story is much better and I would recommend buying that instead. If you must see this film, rent it rather than buy unless you are a die hard fan of the director.
on 26 February 2010
Maybe it is a cultural thing, but I can find few redeeming qualities about this film, expect perhaps some of the cinematography - I especially liked the lingering shot of the axe laying in a pile of horse dung, hinting at impending disaster. It reminds me of some of the early Claude Chabrol work, the kind of film made on a budget in a week and a half. The acting is just terrible.