Wednesday Editor’s Pick: L’argent (1983)

by on January 11, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Tue Jan 17 at 1:00, 2:50, 4:40, 10:10; Wed Jan 18 at 1:00, 2:50, 4:40, 6:30, 8:20, 10:10; and Thu Jan 19 at 1:00, 2:50, 4:40 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]

Its no surprise Film Forum’s Robert Bresson series (Jan 6-26) is the hottest repertory ticket in town, as it is the first time a retrospective of the director has hit the states in 14 years. And never fear non-New Yorkers, a cross-country tour is already scheduled; see the full lineup here.
Jonathan Rosenbaum described Bresson’s last film as”a shocking and devastating work like few others;” while Kent Jones proclaims of L’Argent, “for my money, one of the great works of art of the second half of the 20th century.”
The man himself, in interview upon the film’s release:


Anthony Lane for the New Yorker:

Adapted from a tale by Tolstoy, it is as swift and wintry as a sudden frost. As often with Bresson, the actors are mostly nonprofessionals, and they move through the series of terrible events like stoics and sleepwalkers, lacking the will to fight fate. A schoolboy pays for a picture frame with a forged note, which enters the social system as if it were a virus, and leads in the end to a feverish killing spree, in which not even the saintly are spared. Yet Bresson—who was eighty-two years old when the film came out, and clearly in no mood for mellowing—frames the acts of wickedness, both great and small, with a terrifying calm. Prepare to be haunted by his closeups of objects: a wallet, a ladle, a bowl of hot coffee, an axe. They might almost be guilty themselves.



Dave Kehr finds the octogenarian on top of his game, for the Chicago Reader:

Robert Bresson’s 14th film in 40 years, made in 1983. It returns to some of the themes of his earlier work—the notion of stolen grace from Pickpocket, the suppression of scenes in favor of a continuous flow of action from A Man Escaped—but there is also a new passion and electricity in Bresson’s minimalist images; it nowhere feels like the work of an 80-year-old an. Among the violent events are a bank robbery, a car chase, a prison insurrection, and a series of brutal murders; the world is ready to explode into chaos, but Bresson retains his contemplative distance, searching for the sense in which this “avalanche of evil” can lead to the ultimate spiritual victory of his protagonist. Bresson, working his sound track as assiduously as his visuals, once again makes us realize how little use most films make of the resources of the cinema. A masterpiece.


Kehr elaborates further for the New York Times:

The film is indeed designed to communicate a sense of crushing fatality. Bresson’s actors (he preferred to call them “models”) are deliberately distant and inexpressive, and Yvan never even seems surprised by the relentless succession of disasters, instigated by the exchange of counterfeit 500-franc notes, that befalls him. Bresson’s unique style is based on showing both less than other filmmakers would (he elides most of the major plot points, including a bank robbery and the death of a child) and much more. He routinely leaves several frames without action at the beginning and end of his shots, creating a physical sense of stillness and eternity that swallows up the petty problems of his characters.
The final sequence of “L’Argent,” which finds the hero killing the one character, a saintly older woman (Sylvie van den Elsen), who has been kind to him, is a dense arrangement of ambiguous images that leaves us wondering whether Yvan is God’s instrument or God’s scapegoat. Like most great poets, Bresson refuses clarity; it is the complexity and ambivalence of his work that give it lasting fascination.



Chris Peabody for Time Out (London):

A single 500 franc forged note changes hands as a schoolboy prank; and with remorseless logic, an innocent is led down the path to becoming an axe-murderer. Taken from a Tolstoy short story, this is a return to the extremes of crime and punishment that Bresson last used in Pickpocket; and as in that film, crime is a model of redemption and prison a metaphor for the soul. True to a taste for Catholic paradox, the murderer may or may not ‘find’ himself through his acts; the family is axed in the name of spiritual release; and most powerful of all, Evil is not demeaned by any vacuous sociological explanation. Filming with his usual tranquil, austere feeling for the miraculous, Bresson still manages to make most other film-makers appear hysterical over-reachers; at nearly 80, his power to renew our faith in cinema is as firm as one could wish for. Gold, pure.


Must read! Indiewire brings together Jones and Rosenbaum for a discussion of Bresson. Jones:

Take those “sensual details.” The scenes with the old woman in “L’Argent” – she brings the bowl of coffee to the old man, he slaps her, there’s a cut to the coffee spilling over and onto her hands; he breaks a glass, she immediately stops what she’s doing, turns around, gets a sponge, gets down on her knees and cleans up the glass. As Jonathan says, the relation between image and sound is never less than crucial – the sound of the coffee spilling, the woman’s footsteps, the clicking of the fragments of glass. The sound is almost always denatured, removed from its ambient context and isolated (and often recorded by Bresson himself). When you hear a sound in Bresson, you really hear it; and when you see an action or a person or an object, you really see them. Which draws you into a state of heightened, extra-sensitive perception – perception of Bresson’s peculiarly vigorous, excited approach to storytelling, and, by implication, to on-going reality, inside and outside the theatre.



Eric Henderson for Slant:

A director with as supple a foundation of cinephilic adoration as Robert Bresson is bound to inspire a lot of Olympian proselytizing, among auteurist converts and heretics alike, about the galactic elemental clarity of his filmmaking, spiked with as many buzzwords as possible such as “unforced,” “simple,” “open-ended,” “spiritual,” “philosophical,” “earthy,” “humane.” It’s almost to the point that reading about Bresson you’d imagine that his films are composed of shots of nothing but koi ponds, cala lilies, creamy, hemp-textured canvases, loaves of bread, or whatever else has become shorthand for cinematic transubstantiation. Which is why a film like L’Argent, which is admittedly unforced, open-ended, and humane (and, to throw in one further Bresson cliché to boot, excises any trace of narrative fat and works it to the bone), hits with the effect not so much reflecting a cleansing of the soul, but rather a ransacking.
Bresson might work with a minimum of details (though even to say that is a mistake, because almost everything that is included in the film is a detail, and each one is all the more resonant for its presence as a chosen object), but his narrative momentum and editing rhythms are surprisingly speedy, never giving any of the characters any time to contemplate an alternate course of action that might alleviate some of their melancholy. Additionally, Bresson’s oblique framing and extremely delicate editing become such a vivid example of “pure cinema” that we half expect the gathered onlookers of the film’s final “open-ended” shot are paying respect to the aesthetic beauty of Yvon’s crime as they are rubbernecking a police arrest. Ultimately, L’Argent manages to convey coherence between rigid moral dogma and sympathetic multiplicity. It’s mind-blowing.



Leo Goldsmith for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

Bresson’s final film is forcefully grim and unforgiving, and yet the film’s peculiar tension lies in its seeming disinterest in its human subjects. L’argent represents the director’s complete evacuation of the subject of human motivation and demonstrates the enormous departure of his later work from his earlier confessional and epistolary films. These early works are no less ambiguous than the later ones, but like so many director’s late films, L’argent is notable for its complete de-emphasis of character in favor of affect and surface. In one scene, an actor conveys that he is moved to tears by another’s benevolent action: stone-faced, and in a single, absurdly perfunctory gesture, the actor simply wipes an invisible tear from his face. This staginess, this circumscribed quality, is recurrent throughout the director’s films. But while many associate this quality with a sense of fatedness, of predestination, here this quality is more claustrophobic, more restrictive than transcendent. The swing of an axe or the breaking of a wineglass seems less like the manifestations of a grand design than a link in a disastrous and inevitable chain of events.
In L’argent, greed and circumstance draw the characters to devastating ends. Coolly finishing his aperitif, the protagonist ends his bloody crime-spree, availing himself to the mechanism of justice. These are acts as puzzling and underwrought as any in Bresson’s films, but here they bear the extra weight of the director’s subtle indignation. Human action is chaotic and its whims arbitrary. Patience, restraint, and quiet attention to all things—these are the attributes that Bresson’s films consistently espouse to the very close of his last grim and exasperated film.



Colin Burnett talks to Bresson’s friend and crew member Jonathan Hourigan:

Bresson has, on one occasion at least, intimated that his films are “experiments.” What, in your mind and as a filmmaker yourself, was he experimenting with, stylistically or technologically speaking, in L’Argent?
This is the territory that most interests me. My understanding and views have evolved over the last twenty-odd years. At the time of arriving on the set of L’Argent, I understood Bresson to be endeavouring absolutely and faithfully to apply the principles outlined in the Notes on Cinematography, which I then believed cohered in a feasible theory. Very roughly speaking, those principles — and that theory — seemed to me to imply a ‘documentary of emotions’.
The automatism imposed on non-professional models allowed unconscious states of soul to be revealed. These states of soul were apprehended by the dual mechanisms of camera and tape recorder. Those revelatory fragments were given expressive form during editing. Bresson conceived of editing as the rhythmic binding together — and thus transformation — of these individually attenuated images. This de-emphasises the significance of script as there is no sense in which a script, laced with pre-determined meaning, is executed.
To that extent, a film is always an ‘experiment’. Models’ unconscious states of soul, which comprise the ‘substance’ or ‘meaning’ of a film, cannot be known in advance or predetermined.
The large number of takes reflect Bresson’s tireless search for the authentic revelation of such states of soul. That which he sought could not be communicated, either to model or to collaborator. Hence Bresson’s frustration and of course, that of others.
More than twenty years on, perhaps I’m less of an absolutist, or purist, about all of this now. My engagement with these issues began at the time, when I was surprised, for example, at the occasional use of sets, rather than locations and the extensive use of lights, both of which seemed to contradict the Notes On Cinematography.
Today, then, I’d want to think a little more about narrative/script and also about the justification for Bresson’s unique approach in the expressive results achieved, rather than in the extent of his adherence to a set of principles. He was, after all, a practical — if rigorous — filmmaker and not a theorist. The Notes on Cinematography are, themselves, working notes and attempts to clarify a series of ideas and practical approaches.
So, thinking about script, tone and conventional narrative ‘meaning’, Bresson’s later films seem to delve deeper into the territory of pessimism, although he might have preferred to say ‘lucidity’. And clearly, even if he sought a ‘documentary of emotions’, this was explored within the context of a very definite narrative structure, with Bresson revealing quite clear tastes and apparent influences in that regard.
To ignore narrative/script would be to ignore one of the major achievements of L’Argent, that is, its extraordinary breadth and depth, all accomplished within a mere, breathless 85 minutes of focus and concentration. Certainly narrative breadth and depth would be one of the ‘experimental’ elements of L’Argent. Only Lancelot du Lac compares in this regard, although La Genèse would also have done so. It is worth noting that Bresson kept very close to the script of L’Argent, whilst constantly searching for new, surprising and expressive possibilities as and when they emerged.



Adrian Martin for a 1999 Film Comment symposium on Bresson:

In its first, forbidding hour, L’Argent resembles – as no other Bresson film so closely does – a Fritz Lang-style mechanism or trap. There is a steely logic to its closed circuit, as the 500 franc note forged by a trio of schoolboys triggers inexorably, step by step, the complete dissolution of Yvon’s life, his gradual loss of job, family, liberty, and soul. The film’s title pinpoints its central agent”: it is indeed money that animates and corrupts everything in this world – at one point resembling the excremental “filthy lucre” Norman 0. Brown immortalized in his classic text Life Against Death, as it spits out of another ugly ATM.


A friend once expressed his eager anticipation, before seeing LArgent, that it would be the “ultimate arthouse slasher film.” And there is something just in this description because, in its fragmentation and mystery, LArgent does strike one as a violent work, certainly Bresson’s most violent alongside Lancelot. As a film about the making of a murderer by a capitalist society, it has an undeniable kinship with movies such as John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Inadvertently inaugurating a popular genre, Bresson’s portrait of a sociopath lays out the founding, primal ambiguities of such a tale, as when it momentarily flirts with conventional psychology by having the old woman ask Yvon, “Why did you kill their)? There’s always a motive for murder.” merely to prompt the matter-of-fact. In Cold Blood-type response, “It gave me a thrill.’
The effect is bleak, even apocalyptic; redemption is nowhere in sight. Yet if this ending can cause us to weep, that is because Bresson has allowed us to fully enter the same crucible of confusion that Jon Jost (another chronicler of male killers and monsters) crystallized in a poignant, crucial image of The Bed You Sleep In: the hands of a man who may or may not be a monster cupping water in a stream, and bringing it up to splash his face. We intuit, in this modest cleansing of a self as in the sharing of a few hazelnuts, the profound mystery of beings who move through landscapes of dehumanizing violence with their capacities for evil and goodness alike locked, invisible and unknowable, inside them – and we witness fleeting moments of absolute, natural purity in a world all gone to hell.



M.C. Zenner, for Senses of Cinema:

Art turned into a tool; justice turned into a tool; outworn social ideals used as tools; even excuses used like tools-all alongside the one genuine tool titling the film, finding its sinuous way down social level after social level, until it hits the penurious bottom whence the lucre seeps no further but collects in the totality of its accumulated weight. Down there it is pure effect, and the effects, having no means of reply, are all bad. What strikes one particularly-and it is evidently what Bresson’s scenario was meant to bring out-is how this exchange utility, this mere mechanism, infects everything it crosses with its own premise; each translates itself into utility terms, each comes to represent something else quite alien to its original sense; self-sufficiency suffocates. All, finally, become dehumanized-abstract ‘humanisms’ being the most vulnerable and the first. It is entirely in tune to have begun L’Argent with the clicks and whirrs, with the slit, of an automated cash-vendor. And to end with the chill blackness at which the witnesses of the arrest appear to be staring: just what you would see if you could really get inside one of those slits.


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