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Disappointing but with moments of near-greatness
on 26 July 2006
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.