(c) 2013 by James Clark
When all is said and done, the impact of the cinema of Robert Bresson comes down to humanity, verging on empty shells, having a brush with their betters, off somewhere on the other side of the universe. A matter of speculation worth inserting here is why he wrapped things up for good, with our film today, L’Argent (1983). For, despite hard questions, of where his palpably challenging interventions could possibly go within the arts and entertainment galaxy, this was far from a project crippled by self-doubt and material desperation. We must come back to this puzzle, later on here, because it rests upon that heart of his discoveries which many other filmmakers, tracking right up to today (and undoubtedly beyond), have run with, often to magnificent (if largely overlooked) consequences.
Since we are extraordinarily drawn, in the case of this film of ours, to the defining features of Bresson’s remarkable career and legacy, let’s tear open this astonishingly rare gift with regard to a matter so quirky as to be persistently lost in those celebrated self-reliant doldrums seemingly prohibiting ingredients from beyond his Olympian heights. The preamble has put onstream fake currency (something Jackie Brown and the gentle woman in Certified Copy become obsessed with), and a gas delivery service man unwittingly accepts it in payment for his duties and products. We won’t, for now, grab on to the rapid and lugubrious course of events streaming out from there; but, rather, we want to highlight the simple manoeuvre of installing the dicey payment. He places the counterfeit French franc notes into a neat little leather pouch. The scene abruptly swings to a bistro window where a placard announces a boxing card. The single term, Boxe (in large case), hopes to get the ball rolling for passers-by. But in its conjunction with a leather container that could lead to monstrous trouble, we find ourselves signed into (that is to say, we could find ourselves signed into, but seldom do) a bout with Pandora’s Box. And if we should find something amiss in the English-tending word (where the French boite would seem far better) we have to face up to our oh-so-French auteur being devoted (like others of his compatriots dating from mid-century) to a Hollywood thriller, of all things. The spectre of the leather-bound-box containing nuclear explosives, in the noir, Kiss Me Deadly, had, many will be saddened to learn, deeply penetrated Bresson’s comportment toward the horrors of intent dominating his art and his whole existence (including that long theatre of non-filmic action following the release of L’Argent).
Before making much of the victimization (at times seemingly bordering on nobility) of our blue-collar protagonist, we are best to question why he chose to pay for his lunch from monies received at the camera shop whose proprietors, a well-dressed couple, thought to get rid of the upshot of a flood of counterfeit bills they were not alert enough to block. The prissy viciousness of the rapidly transpiring preceding scenes—involving a well-dressed, pudgy adolescent whose face is locked into a hungry scowl, and who, needing more cash than his posh allowance provides and being rebuffed as to a raise by an officious, executive-level father, acquires from a friend (likewise expensively dressed, and likewise reflexively odious) a forged 500-franc note and unloads it at the camera shop to use the change to get his creditor off his back—establishes such a swamp of vomitousness that virtually anyone dropping by at that point (as Yvon, the diffident, salt-of-the-earth gas-man, does) must almost seem to be a saint. Add to that the lock-step perjury of the shopkeepers (and their duly bribed assistant, Lucien, supporting their claim [on the spot, and then in court] never to have seen Yvon)—prompting the cop, whom Yvon brings from the restaurant to prove his innocence, to apologize for unduly troubling them—and we have a case of having to look closely at the evidence, which includes evidence that Yvon is being tested about the ampleness of his heart, not merely about being felony-free. We’re going to get nowhere here, unless we negotiate aright the difficult situation of Yvon’s being—his infinitely more palatable presence than theirs notwithstanding—not significantly more sound than they regarding another law, another logic.
Being a person of modest income and few prospects, Yvon constitutes a piteous state of affairs as caught up in a jungle of that cutthroat material possessiveness and the advantages of deluxe self-image he instinctively and culturally forgoes in favor of the domestic nourishments of doggedly tending to his wife and little girl. On being convicted but freed on probation he loses his job, refuses to plead his case to a presumably well-dressed and well-positioned boss—“I’m not crawling!”—and early one morning spends a moment with his sleeping four-year-old before a day as driver for a bank robber, which sends him to the pen for three years. (The filmed second when he arrives home from the first trial brings us one of those amazing and unforgettable visions Bresson touches us with, namely the joy on his daughter’s face when she sees him coming through the doorway.) During the lead-up to his first trial, he and his wife sit in their bare-minimum kitchen, he contracted with anxiety and she saying, rather listlessly, “We must do something!” He replies in a choked voice, “What thing?” They visit a lawyer; and although he condemns the injustice he is no more effective than Yvon’s wife, who is a factor contributing to the aura of hopelessness at this rather Dickensian stage (of a narrative loosely based upon a Tolstoy novella, though Bresson’s screenplay will have nothing to do with the apotheosis those two nineteenth century writers traded in).
“What thing?” he had asked, by way of efforts in rebounding from the School of Hard Knocks. What, in addition to dour self-pity and childish mischief did he bring to the war? On leaving that morning after kissing his sleeping child, he’s intercepted by his wife on the landing of the tenement’s stairway. “I worry,” she says. He ignores her and we hear his footsteps fading away, in fact his last time in that setting where he had tried to make a stand of low-key, low-risk consistency. His indifference at that moment to her feelings implies that such intensities have never been part of his concerns, and that in fact being monotonously solicitous had much more to do with his comfort than their real well-being. On being sentenced and led away in handcuffs, he looks back toward her only as he’s about to disappear. There is no meeting of their eyes. In accordance with that dry interchange, virtually all of Yvon and his wife’s subsequent contacts come to us by way of the prison’s mail censorship department, a round-table of women going over her incoming mail to him. But before that there is one direct visit by her; and through the grille (but one of the things separating them) she has nothing to say. “Say something!” he shouts. After a while she gets out, “I want to start a new life [presumably with more traction than there was with him]…Remember we parted without quarrelling” [that latter touch implicating their taste for retrenchment]. Then the censor board reads for us, “Our little Yvette died… diphtheria… I’m crying too much to write…” Yvon buries his face in his cot; one of his cellmates reads the bad news (left on the floor) and sympathetically (with an attempt at warm empathy we realize Yvon would never enter upon) muses, to the third cellmate, “We fear death because we love life.” How much, indeed, does Yvon love life? is a question being posited to us by this narrative. And what kind of fear, in fact, immobilizes our hard-luck guy?
Introducing the second part of the overriding disaster of love that is Yvon’s moment of truth, there is his attempting to kill a fellow-prisoner for his brutish taunts about the cessation of visits by his wife, his being handed forty days in isolation, pretending to require tranquilizers and storing them up for a suicide attempt (that, true to form, is thwarted) and, back in a (standard but different) cell, being the beneficiary of one of those flawed oracles Bresson regularly brings to bear, in the service of casting light amidst the pervasive gloom—light that would set in relief the solitude resource Yvon could not embrace during his time in solitary confinement. Just in from the infirmary, he, inert as usual, reclines impassively on his cot while his new cellmate (a nervous and wordy young man, reminiscent of the glad-tidings visitor to the soppy artist in Four Nights of a Dreamer) rather desperately tries to convince himself of a channel that rocks. He leads off with—in view of the rancid slice of the general population the scenario has already stunned us with—the booby trap to the effect that the traditional justice system “is against you… You have the natural right to be like other men” [that being relentlessly raging barracudas]. Pulling himself away from this backfiring thesis of natural rights, he comes to concentration upon the supposed heroism behind Yvon’s being no friend of normality, “…with your new self-awareness of the world’s absurdity and the impossibility of change…” Like the aforementioned kinetics-radical in Four Nights, rattling off his good news to the dull protagonist, the systematic jailbird relishes shooting insults toward the status quo. “What do they say? They say, ‘Stay out of what doesn’t concern you… Wait. The world will be happy soon…’” Then suddenly it’s way more about himself than Yvon, a long-shot to be a viable partner. “I won’t wait around for that. Believe me, it will be as stupid as it is now… I want happiness now, on my terms!” The rocket of rejuvenation begins to sputter in light of material realities. “Oh money, visible God! What wouldn’t we do for you?” Moving from rehab theory to practice, he asks Yvon to show him his legs (his new friend having limped a bit coming in). Yvon explains, “It’s the knees mainly. They feel weak.” His new acquaintance eschews noticing that being weak-kneed is a seriously crippling disease of the sensibility. Instead, he self-contradictorily embraces the upbeat but overmatched scientific status quo—“That’s the Valium [taken to excess by a weak-kneed suicide bid]. It’ll pass…”
Will it? Yvon is processed out of the jail by staff that might have been moving furniture, he checks into a self-exaggerating “Hotel Moderne” at the same impersonal (no eye-contact), inertial tempo as that moment at the jailhouse door; and we immediately see hands (his, presumably) in a sink rinsing off the blood, shed in (presumably, at this point) murdering the hotel staff. He loots the till and goes on, next morning, to stalk an elderly lady having just cashed a money order at a post office on the fringes of a population centre. His following her along a path amidst a meadow and woodland (shown at middle-distance)—the verdancy of which is vaguely disturbing, exhausting in light of the stark sterility of his previous locales (the hotel’s grey sign making an effort to be attractive being, in fact, graphically painful)—gives the Valium glutton the air of a stray dog bending to a rabid appetite. Like so many Bresson figures—Gerard, in Balthazar, especially coming to mind (but also, and marvelously [right down to the landscaping], the melancholy and addictive Country Priest, wending his way to a showdown with the soulful Duchess—the irrevocable destructiveness of whom is facilitated by a recklessly trusting and assuringly conversant soul, Yvon (and here again the uncontrollable beast aura gains force) is fed and otherwise calmly catered to by her (one feature of his domestication being his housing in the form of a shed, a sort of large dog house with a sleeping mat on the floor). At one point he tells her (in lieu of a lick), “You are good people. I know you won’t denounce me.” A police convoy rumbles into the district to bring closure to the unpleasantness at the hotel. The woman gets her face slapped by her alcoholic father (another uncontrollable glutton, but also an ardent pianist [showing much more capacity to struggle for grace than Yvon]) for exposing the extended family on the premises to danger, and gets told, “You are a fool!” She serves him a bowl of coffee as if it were some chopped meat. He is there to lend a hand, like a curious pet, as she digs potatoes. That night, an axe he’s found amongst the welter of gardening and forest equipment is shown, amidst blackness and greenery (now lurid), prying open the venerable door; and it (far more prominent than his presence in all this) makes the rounds of the farmhouse becoming more bloody at every subsequent station. Two factors are particularly designed to have us leave the theatre with maximum discomfort. The first is the dispatching (by that impersonal axe, almost a guillotine, for Yvon’s presence has been virtually airbrushed out) of a crippled child sitting up in his bed, covering his eyes as the portable abattoir advances toward his door. The second is the household’s pet dog, a fine German Sheppard with candid eyes, bewildered by the carnage which he beholds, racing from room to room, confronting suffering and putting to shame savagery, as did Balthazar—savagery the oppressiveness of which pulls us back to Yvon’s wife’s, “We must do something!” The dog’s blood is shown splattering over the benefactor’s bedroom wall, at the final execution, introduced by the outcry of short-circuited self-maintenance, “Where’s the money?”
Having filled his gut with outrage, it was on to the neighborhood bar and crowding a member of the police search party with his ugly news. He’s marched to a public safety vehicle, and the patrons of the bar line the walkway (we seeing them in silhouette, from behind), having gotten a stiff one on the house. Bresson, for all his reputation for unembellished delivery, was, from beginning to end, a votary of the enigmatic; and L’Argent has posed one of the most daunting affronts to common sense ever to appear on the screen. The trajectory, from Yvon’s jangled lunch leading to apprehension, and all the way to lying on his mattress in Solitary, scraping his tin cup back and forth along the cement floor (like a bored simian in a cage; or like a beggar, a loser in life’s war), with the ulterior motive of cadging a self-destructive level of trancs, is sautéed with such a weight of normal justification for his sociopathic behavior that we have to have our wits about us to see where the helmsman is going with this. Excrescences like the woman photo-shop co-owner fuming, on leaving the court where she helped screw Yvon, about how those two kids and their damn bill made a fool of her, going on to their school and complaining to the priest, a move that prompts the mom of the pudgy smart guy to advise him to brazen it out, and then to slip over to the shop with a fat payoff for the complainer; and like Lucien, first of all fired from his job for embezzlement, and perfecting a cash machine looting, only to emphasize, to the judge on his finally being seen for what he is, that his charity pay-outs justify his actions, and, then, secondly, on winding up in the same jail that had been Yvon’s home, thinking to make amends by including him in a jailbreak (“I swear before God, anything you want…”)—tend to show Yvon as a gyroscope of self-respect. But let’s catch up with this killer at the point of hearing Lucien’s, “I’ll take care of you to make up for what I did.” His response is, “I’ll kill you before I go with you!”
True, he would quite rightly not be amenable to spending much time with someone proven to be that unreliable; but the melodramatic, “I’ll kill you!” reveals being impelled to play out a course of self-conscious advantage speaking, not to an intractable absurdity of the world-historical context, but instead to that worm-eaten forum’s being actually of importance to impress. Jackie Brown comes upon a similarly deadly adversary and—truly in the spirit of “new self-awareness”—she opts for a saga of vastly skeptical, vastly disinterested play. That is a step Yvon cannot muster, and no class-clichés and carnivorousness from the neighbors get him off the hook. He has an appointment with Pandora’s Box, and he disgraces himself, going on to appallingly ravage several lives still in play with their inertia until he, in a paroxysm of fearful and presumptuous hatred sees fit to remove them.
At the outset of the deadly shambles visiting Yvon, his wife seems barely more alight than he is. But is her near-whisper, “We must do something,” projected so hopelessly due to knowing full well that her partner terminally lacks resilience? Seen first of all as arms and hands semi-consciously manipulating machinery linking his gas truck (and its tall-order logo, Avia [implying lift]) to the customer’s building, our victim is thereby measured out as out of his depth in the event of subtle and molten interpersonal challenges. That would include knowing what to do with another entity in the house with motives transcending those of a medieval serf. If we look closely at that woman’s wooden body language, we can discover yet one more implication in Pandora’s Box, an opportunity for a creative life being smothered from without, and, no doubt, also from within herself, as tolerating such servitude. Bresson’s famous non-acting technique does in fact comprise a revelatory scheme as to bodies stunted by crushing gravity, and as to very slightly imparting their purchase upon sensual motion. The toddler’s smile on greeting the depressed dad would represent an almost stunning exception to that near-death baseline. As Yvon sits fretting (his options visually emergent beside him, in a passive bambi figurine and the leather pouch bristling with active challenge), she demands, “Find out about it!” That a factor of love struggles to be noticed, in L’Argent, may come as surprising news to most viewers. But, I think, in its slightness and pulverization, it masterfully becomes part of installing an all-important rejuvenative possibility to a narrative that might seem a cry of despair, especially alarming in seemingly terminating an incisive, fertile career. On being assured by the ignorable lawyer that there would be no trouble getting back to his (listless) cruising speed—“We’ll pay the restaurant and get the charges dropped… Your boss should see that, simply because it’s right, he should view you as innocent”—Yvon leaves the office placing his hand on her shoulder, more a reflex than a rally. On being given a suspended sentence and told to “show more caution in accusing respectable people,” he loses his job and his wife, seemingly ever-ready to test the waters, tells him, “If you explained…” and he cuts her off with, “I’m not crawling,” indicative of the same panic for self-righteousness that devastated the family in Balthazar. After the excursion into indubitable crime, he’s advised by a judge, “You have five days to lodge an appeal.” Before being taken away he has words with his lawyer, presumably passing on making any such effort. He gets around to glancing in the direction of his wife just before exiting; she, who has looked his way with sadness and confusion, is by that time looking downwards. The partnership, such as it was, was now fully defunct.
A film as dispiriting as L’Argent needs a cross-current to liven it up. Bresson, bless him, isn’t going to kiss asses to raise attendance figures. But he does generously embed, within an avalanche of utterly forgettable nonentities, a vein of ironic and rousing catastrophe to provide us with, if not enchantment, a bolt of memorable alarm. One of our fastballer’s less recognized powers is a wicked changeup pitch, all but invisible to viewers undergoing the near-death experiences of a menu of truly relentless bad news. In our film here our ace gives a most thrilling display of pulling the string on what starts to look like a commitment to some form of heart and ends with a death-rattle. Leading off the highlight reel from this perspective is the departure of the prep school boys from the photo shop they’d just scammed. Their mopeds are parked across from a sign reading, Bazar de l’Ectricite, where, presumably, electrodynamics of strange appeal and challenge is up for grabs. The flustered, oldster way that the riders mount their steeds, frantically fold their kick-stands and put-put into the near distance comprises something of a kick in the teeth for their pretensions to vitality seen, in previous episodes, taking the form of renegade marauding upon detested weaklings. Both boys are coifed in such a way as to draw attention to top-knots and almost bird-like preening and acquisitiveness. Such attentions to physicality, including admiring a scrap book carefully mounted with reproductions of nudes in classic art (“A body is so beautiful…”), are tellingly adulterated by the cold timbre of the transactions. “Other parents give much more,” one complains to his father about an allowance that cannot cover his expenditures upon top-of-the-line products. His father, having just handed out cash as if he were a bank teller unsuited for front-line roles, tells the scowling customer, “Norbert, leave me, please.” Offering to pawn his watch to his friend in exchange for the balance to cover the pressing debt, the latter says, with the same kind of effete authority coming from Norbert’s dad, “Forget that…Look…” (In a context of fake currency this gambit brings to mind Kiarostami’s Certified Copy and its, “Forget the original. Get a good copy.”)
The bird metaphors (coming to a crescendo in the boys’ flapping for the sake of taking flight from the propped up motos after snagging the prize from the photo shop’s cash register) most pointedly extend to the plumage of good clothing. On the stonewalling under oath about Yvon’s never having been in the shop and therefore never having acquired the copies there, the shop owner tucks a wad of real bills into the perjurer’s pocket and unctuously urges him, “Buy that smart suit you wanted!” And with the spectacle of bourgeois appreciation of attire design, a pitch as savagely finishing with a sudden drop as deadly as the gallows, we gain access to this film’s finality (in so many ways). The first judge, who could have given Yvon some credit for being duped by the camera-shop gang (but who would, though, have left embarrassingly in play his using company monies for his own requirements) is clearly a partisan of fastidious dressing as against the venerable stigma of blue coveralls. (That pass was prefigured by the police very hastily taking the squeaky-clean criminals’ word over the charges by Yvon’s presumed lower-class instability.) Police and court functionaries in their uniforms thus discharge a service to the bourgeois knighthood of the day; and thereby a torrent of skepticism toward the status quo pours down upon what might have been seen as a rather puzzling, over-emotional, hard-luck, neo-noir melodrama. What, it seems, Bresson was essentially absorbed with here was the formation and maintenance of a top-dog clan which in fact is merely dog. So-called elites unperturbed by profiting from empty copies say something cutting about the pervasively facilitating level of justice or integrity in these times. It is this fascinating trajectory (opening flood gates of venom inundating not merely financial chicanery but a comprehensive impotence in attaining to sensual exigencies) that lifts L’Argent far beyond manipulative, sentimental melodrama.
L’Argent is, thereby, a war story dressed up as a crime story. Its sub-text of traces of loving resilience being utterly steamrollered is where we ought to be now, in measuring the gifts Bresson brings to film for the last time. Though Yvon’s lawyer is a mealy-mouthed wimp, that figure does bring to light the necessity of wit as well as nerve in the situation so uncompromisingly delineated. Bresson could usher us up to the necessity of dealing with that oppressive kind of motion; but his was a vision masterfully at home with only horrific corruption and being mowed down by it. That vision has subsequently galvanized a startling number of films by artists more at home with love’s sparkle of wit than Bresson proved to be. Having come to a crushingly accurate rendition of the blood-curdling dead weight of world historical normality, he left the field for others to lift it into a more real (sur-real) realm of frisson. In doing so, he would, I’d like to believe, be aware that such a gambit had already been staged by his friend, Jacques Demy, long before the 1983 moment of farewell. Next up, then, for us, is Demy’s first and most incisively joyous film, Lola (1961). Following that—to push further into the windfalls beckoning where most folks would see a dead loss, utterly debilitated trauma—another dazzling debut, the Coens’ Blood Simple (1984). Two weeks after that, Kim Nguyen’s early innings home run, War Witch (2012).