The Most Beautiful Fraud: L’Argent

The film that Robert Bresson made in 1983, L’Argent, would be the last he would ever make.  It is, if nothing else, a movie made by a director in full command of his intentions, a work of art created by someone who knew exactly what he wanted to do and would not deviate at all from that vision.  He had made mistakes, the Robert Bresson who, just past his 81st birthday, decided that his next project would be to adapt a short story by no less magnificent a figure than Leo Tolstoy; he had made movies that sacrificed their emotional impact to technique, plot, and intrigue.  He had used music to score his films, allowing the resonance of each piece to contaminate the message he wanted to send.  He had let his movies be dominated by actors who brought their own inferences and implications to their performances.  None of that would make it to the screen in what proved to be his final cinematic work.

L’Argent follows the plot of its source material, “The Forged Coupon”, with some fidelity; characters are composited, time is compressed, and the action is updated to modern-day Paris.  But the most important deviation is Bresson chose to film only the story’s first, bleak half, where the presence of a handful of counterfeit banknotes causes a ripple effect, with one boy’s mischief combining with another’s greed, compounding with a shopkeeper’s fraud and deceit, culminating in the destruction of an innocent man who then goes on to destroy the lives of others.  The redemption he finds through faith and kindness in the second half of the story is not seen on film; it ends with the killer’s blank-faced confession.  This was not a new approach for Bresson, who, almost ten years earlier, had served similar notice to the Arthurian legend in Lancelot du Lac:  stripped of the ultimate sacrifice and redemption of Arthur and Guinevere, it ends with only blood and doom as the Knights of the Round Table are cruelly slaughtered.

The comparison with Lancelot, in my opinion Bresson’s finest film, does not end there.  L’Argent features Bresson’s choice of using largely untrained actors, taught to deliver a line over and over until it loses its meaning, becoming merely a vector for information, blending into to the overall symphony of sounds.  Lancelot‘s clanging and creaking of armor across the fields and through the fens is replaced by the constant clacking of shoes on pavement, cars speeding down lonely nighttime roads, and always the rustle of money in human hands.  Bresson felt at this point that music was a distraction and an imposition, and replaced it with a commanding use of natural sounds, sometimes dull and hypnotic and at other times delivering a jarring shock.  And, too, both films make heavy use of Bresson’s elliptical camerawork, establishing a powerful visual rhythm while never quite tracking the action — much of his work here reminds me of the technique, often used in Japanese comics, of showing aspects of a scene such as seemingly meaningless décor and environmental details while the actual events of the scene are only heard or implied.

As in Lancelot du Lac, Bresson makes a number of attempts, both subtle and direct, to confuse the eye about the identity of his actors.  In Lancelot, he obscures the identity of the characters with suits of heavy armor and full facial visors; here he does it with contemporary Parisian fashion.   Many of them were chosen because of the way they resembled one another, and Bresson outfits them with similar clothing and hairstyles to emphasize this quality; as he did in almost all of his films, going at least as far back as Pickpocket, he fails to tip his hand with any lingering camerawork about who in any given scene we are meant to be paying attention to.  He draws the viewer into a world that is both familiar — sometimes numbingly, banally so — and mysterious, and leaves us to understand what we are seeing as it unfolds.  Bresson said that he preferred his audiences to feel a film before they understood it, and L’Argent is perhaps his most pure success in making that happen.

While a pure humanist like Kurosawa was perhaps a bit too prone to hand-holding to guide an audience through his world of meaning, and a pure ironist like Akerman was too willing to cut it adrift completely, Bresson was too much a structuralist to leave us entirely to our own devices, but too dedicated to his vision of cinematic art to act as an artistic presence in our own work.  L’Argent has some extremely pointed things to say about the way capitalism and the pursuit of money has poisoned our ability to relate honestly to one another, but it says them in ways that range from oblique (the way two convicts celebrate a moment of joy during the main character’s lowest ebb, which we don’t realize as we don’t even see that he’s in the scene at first) to devastatingly subtle (after being caught overcharging a customer and pocketing the difference, Lucien, an employee of the crooked shop owner, coolly informs his boss “I thought there was an understanding between dishonest people”). Money is God in the world of L’Argent, and like God, it can bring blessings or curses, can be logical and just or capricious and cruel.

In the end, while L’Argent is a depiction of the way events can quickly and effortlessly spiral into chaos, it is the most controlled statement of Bresson’s storied career.  In every scene — one as fraught with meaning as a circle of female prison workers sitting around a table reviewing what mail needs to be censored for the convicts, or one as seemingly casual as the twisting of an old woman’s foot as she digs for potatoes in the ground — we are seeing exactly what he wants us to see in the way he wants us to see it. He controls our vision of a world corrupted by money just as much as the money controls that world, and while his concept of “cinématographe” may be difficult to explain, it is best illustrated by watching this, its final realization.


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