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L'Argent (1983) ****
This is a hard film to rate for any number of reasons. It is challenging for one, and not really a movie for another. L'argent is more a philosophical essay on celluloid than anything else. This could be said for any or all of Bresson's films for that matter. His style of film-making is not really cinematic. It is philosophical and, to quote Paul Schrader, transcendental. L'Argent is a tale about the evils of money and materialist ideology. Bresson has been spoken openly about his shock and fear at the ever increasing materialism in society. The film begins as a spoiled school boy is refused the necessary money by his father to repay a debt. He goes to a friend who gives him a counterfeit bill, which they then go off to spend. They go to a photo shop, and buy something cheap so as to get as much real change as possible. The woman sees that it is fake, but accepts it anyway so as to make the sale. Her husband, the owner, scolds her for it, but does not report it, and instead passes it off to an unsuspecting oil delivery man, Yvon. He then goes to a restaurant and tries to get a drink, unknowingly using the fake bill. He is arrested, and the shop owners and their cashier refuse to acknowledge the man not only got the bill from them, but was ever in the shop to begin with. From this incident Yvon's life spirals out of control. He is let off without jailtime, but the scandal costs him his job. He turns to a life of crime to make money. He gets thrown in jail, his wife leaves him, and his child dies. From here the film goes really out there, as Yvon becomes an axe murderer upon his release. It is certainly far fetched, but I think that may have been Bresson's point. The movie is a damnation of the costs of money (no pun) replacing the sense of God. Bresson once said that today there is no more God in the world, there is only money, which has become God. The film's total disregard for a plausible narrative and sense of restraint is frustrating. It is a short film, and it feels that way, as Bresson wastes no time getting from point A to point B. That is not to say that the film is not well directed though, it is superbly directed with the care and hands of a great master of the medium. It is difficult to comprehend why Yvon does what he does once released from jail by following any logical reasoning of the narrative, but that is the point Bresson wanted to make - the lust for money and material possession and the alienation and disenfranchisement from a purposeful existence causes people to do illogical and irrational things. Bresson uses this extreme (and i do not mean that lightly) example to highlight this. Bresson accomplished exactly what he was trying to do with L'Argent, and it is difficult to criticize him for that.
Robert Bresson tells the story of a handful of people who are manipulated by greed for the key component of capitalism: Money (originating in the form of a counterfeit bill, I'll also tell you it's based fairly loosely on a Tolstoy novella "The Forged Note"). A disturbing series of events change the lives of a few individuals and signifies how such a system can rot a human being to their core. Emotionally I connected with this film very strongly, at some points it made me sit up in my seat and shake my head in amazement. However, Bresson's directing style is very different from most. He'll pause and hold moments in time expecting the viewer to stay with him. He'll also decide to leave out parts of a film that most would deem very important (generally, he avoids showing too many scenes that are similar to each other) which can be confusing. But when it comes to paying attention to this film, you'll get much more than you give... I go back to this movie every now and then and find something new to love about it. Rating? easily 10/ 10.
"L'Argent" is Robert Bresson's very last film and a piece of work that
went through a lot of financial problems to see the light of day. It
was dismissed by many producers before being finally taken in hand by
the Ministry of the Arts. At that time, Jack Lang was the ministry and
his daughter served as a "model" for Bresson in the film where she is
Yvette, Yvon's wife.
Sourced from a short story by Léon Tolstoï, "l'Argent" is first the assessment of a downward spiral for the main hero of the film, Yvon. Because he was given a forged note, this domestic oil delivery man will be caught in a chain of unfortunate events which will see him jailed, losing his cute, little daughter and wife before turning into a murderer. Through his decay, all forms of dishonesty, cruelty, injustice will be stated with money at their core, particularly in the first half of the film. Money is used for rewarding cowardice (the photograph who rewards his employee Lucien for his false evidence), for buying people's silence (Norbert's mother who gives the photograph's wife money to compensate her) and more generally, money is a God that makes Yvon's fate take a tragic dimension and drives a cruel, unfair world.
Its depiction is a perfect opportunity for Bresson to let his sparse, cold, neutral cinematographic writing shine. The more the film goes on, the more these epithets prevail with an accumulation of close-ups of objects, audacious elliptical sequences, a tightened editing and deliberately bland models who recite their texts and don't "act" it. Bresson's minimalist approach of this tragic story and harsh society amounts to a limpid harmony that inevitably brings an unshakable emotion and it's important to note down the moment when Yvon is put up by the old lady. These sequences are like lulls in Yvon's grisly fate and it's impossible to remain indifferent to the old lady's dreary way of life or when she's offered a few hazelnuts by Yvon. There's even a glimmer of hope when she pronounces the words: "I would forgive to the rest of the world".
It's true that Bresson's highly elliptical, straightforward style will leave many viewers baffled as there is no psychology or action but if you're sensitive to his unspectacular directing, you will realize that he pushed his art to the extreme to better get the audience involved in Yvon's woes. You can watch it only once but it will forever stay in your mind.
On a strictly formalist level, Robert Bresson's swan song, "L'Argent"
(1983, France;which directly translates to "Money"), can be regarded as
Pure Cinema. That is to say, no emotions, no actions, no music, none of
such "artificiality" that has customarily been associated with cinema.
At best, the film (and for that matter, Bresson's entire filmography)
can be described as a Cinema of Ideology.
What is strictly at work here is the "idea" of how money can corrupt and destroy the human spirit. Surely, this can be derived from the Biblical concept of "money being the root of all evil" (Bresson's Christian upbringing being almost always discernible in his films). But this is not to regard this essential commodity per se as the reason for all things evil. Rather, at least in the film's context, it's a particularly forged 500-franc note that set in motion a series of unpleasant and unjust events, with this quiet and unassuming gas station attendant named Yvon Targe at the (abysmal) center.
As suggested from the preceding paragraphs, what concerns Bresson here is not the characters themselves or the milieu they are in (the actuality), as let's say the Italian Neo-Realism would have it, but the idea of how an unscrupulous act can be the cause of another person's undoing. This is humanism in its abstraction. Thus, watching the implications and complications of the counterfeit 500-franc bill upon the lives of the characters--or upon the life of Yvon--is like watching statuesque figures ("15th-century Christian icons", as some would politely have it) being callously manipulated by their blind fate, perennially condemned to be dragged along by the turning of its wheels.
And it is Bresson himself who is the prime mover of this "wheel". In his hands, the "force" of this fate is of such a cold, detached, unforgivably rational quality that one can unfailingly have the feeling of not being able to bear it all. From the initial simple act of the two schoolboys having to knowingly spend the counterfeit money at a photography shop, to the final harrowing act of Yvon having to commit a terrible deed in the name of and as a vengeance against the money (in a figurative sense), one senses Bresson as having the big hand in this cause-and-effect chain of events.
If one gets such a feeling, it's because the filmmaker (already 82 at that time) intended it to be so. As "L'Argent" is a specimen of Bresson's own brand of Pure Cinema, he absolutely wants his exacting vision and conception to be seen and felt in each and every scene, unhampered and uncluttered by the "standard" cinematic manipulations of stylized dialogue, fancy emotions, accompanying soundtrack and contrived actions. In this specific cinematic world, the filmmaker is the cinematic god himself whose fuel for his performers (non-professional at that) is mainly his idea of how cinema should be.
(In reference to one of his films, a reviewer noted that it is Bresson himself who is assuming the different characters in the film. Curiously, the above-noted film elements are what define, not in a derogative way though, Bresson's introductory feature film, "The Ladies of Bois du Bologne".)
This, in effect, gives an entirely purist level to the filmic conception of what it means to be an auteur, formally introduced to movie lexicon by the French New Wave, as pioneered by Jean-Luc Godard. "Purist", in that, whereas the New Wave pioneers can still "play" upon the above-mentioned filmic artificialities, Bresson the auteur is no different from being a sculptor or a painter or even a novelist. It's his own soul that seeps through his work. The product is distinguished by the singularity of its maker's personality.
What makes this singularly cold, clinical method even more pronounced is how Bresson's characters always find themselves drawn into the vortex of some kind of moral and/or spiritual crisis. The intellectual thief in "Pickpocket", the desolate young wife in "A Gentle Woman", the abused teenage girl in "Mouchette", the self-destructive youth in "The Devil, Probably", the contemplative priest in "Diary of a Country Priest", and now the quiet simpleton-turned-morally bankrupt murderer in "L'Argent". Bresson's rigorous and steely formalist cinema should just be the perfect stage for the dark night of his characters' souls. Grace is attained not without some form of sacrifice and damnation of the soul.
It is this ideology that fills the mold of this filmmaker's astonishing pure art. Unrelentingly dark and morbid, perhaps, but a flickering light of salvation can still be seen through it all.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Robert Bresson was one of those rare storytellers that could take a universal theme and apply it in real-world terms into an image that was both beautiful and horrifying. L'Argent is Bresson's opinions on money; and the evil lengths that some people do in order to get it. The idea being that it has the ability to turn moral people into evil creatures. It is no surprise then, in this instance that the story begins with two (supposedly moral) teenagers who begin a life of crime through the forgery of bank notes. The journey that the central character Yvon takes on his fall from grace is from devoted husband and father to ruthless murderer. Whilst his journey may seem a bit too simplistic for some, it should be seen as a metaphor that the capability for evil lies within every man and that the money of the title acts merely as an accessory. Yvon suffers a series of negative events which affects him until his character quite literally hits breaking point and then commits the ultimate sin; all of which was as a result of money. Bresson's style is famous amongst directors and it really is breathtaking stuff to watch. The amount of meaning and power that he can get in to a film with minimal dialogue, unprofessional actors and in a relatively short period of time is impressive. Some of the scenes are mesmerising simply because of their lack of typical filmic conventions. The lack of a soundtrack also adds to the horror of the conclusion; which only adds to its realistic nature. Perhaps it is the lack of filmic conventions which means that Bresson's films are not well known by the general public, but if people can view just one of his masterpieces; it would be difficult for it not to stay in the viewer's mind and increase the desire to see and speak more of his output. L'Argent was unfortunately, to be Bresson's final film, his long in development filmed version of the book of Genesis never came to be; but it is a masterful swansong and indeed is highly recommended.
"L'Argent" (French, 1983): When I saw Bresson's 1974 film "Lancelot du Lac" in 1977, I was amazed. What a stripped down, abstract, minimalist film! How empty, unemotional, and full of dread can one film be? Well, he met this challenge nine years later with his own (and last film) "L'Argent". Imagine screen writing a very interesting, linear story (taken from Tolstoy's short story "The Forged Note"), creating many characters who occasionally cross one another's paths, but then using static, nearly frozen camera work; stiff, nearly frozen "actors" (non-actors, "deliverers of the few lines"); and no major action to depict the events of your story. The result is almost like a "recreation of actual events". If you're looking for an intelligent story, here it is. If you're looking for entertainment, powerful acting, fascinating interaction, dizzying camera work, Dolby sound or a single special effect, go elsewhere.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
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 it's strong points.
On the DVD for the film L'Argent, it's writer/director Robert Bresson
says that he dislikes his films being called "works", because he sees
each films as being a sort of "striving" or attempt towards something
more and more perfect with cinematography and so on, and most
specifically to strive towards truth with what's up on the screen. It's
an interesting position to see from the film's own creator, because the
truth as presented in L'Argent is that really of repression. It's not
just the characters, or particularly the actors portraying them, or the
deliberate flow of shots in a scene of violence or physical altercation
or something that should be run of the mill in a crime movie. It's the
society itself, and even in the subtler ways the mechanics of society,
of money as well, drive along people, especially when they do wrong.
Like other Bresson pictures, L'Argent is interested in man's conscience
and what it is to go over the line of what makes one guilty or not
based on the cruel fates of such a society, only this time even more
restrained and- as the word gets thrown around so often- detached.
But I would be a little hesitant to label it outright as detached. Bresson's definitely no Scorsese, let's make that clear, and one's not going to get a camera movement that jolts you in your seat. On the other hand there's a level of low-key engrossment in the material. It's not very easy to get through, to be certain, as Bresson is all about both subtleties and hitting you over the head with the message, although not seemingly so much with the latter. His story comes from a Tolstoy short, and it seems fitting for a man who's masterpiece, A Man Escaped, also dealt with the feelings of dread against a clockwork structure where any and all feeling comes in smaller doses. The protagonist, Yvon, gets handed a twist of fate with some counterfeit money, and gets put to jail after taking a deal on a job that leads to a car crash (perhaps the one and only time, ironically of course, that Bresson probably tried an action scene like this). After a stint in prison, where coming face to face with the man originally responsible for putting him in there via the counterfeit money only brings a sense of loss in lacking revenge, he goes through a murder spree.
But a murder spree, of course, as Bresson would only do, where omitted details are all apart of the mis-en-scene and in adding an emphasis on the aftermath more-so than the actual grisly details of what goes on in the moment. There's even a moment towards the end of something out of Sling Blade, only here not so much out of the simplicity of the mind from knowing right or wrong but from the simplicity of being numbed by the experience: the lack of a conscience. Yvon is the kind of criminal that never gets shown in movies, and rightfully so. He doesn't fit into a comfortable mold, and it will be a little sluggish for some viewers, even in an 81 minute running time, to see the usual Bresson tactics going on; likely many, many takes to wear down the already non-professional actors, and this time stuck in a near-rigid control of Bresson's in an emphasis of camera over performance. As one critic pointed out, it's more like 15th century icons than usual 'actors'. And, truth be told, it's not quite as fascinating as A Man Escaped or Pickpocket because of Bresson making it tougher to get into the detachment of the main character (the lack of narration may be attributable to this, or the simple fact that perhaps Tolstoy is a hard literary nut to crack).
But as his final film, it's a good "attempt" that does progress ideas about the truth behind criminal acts, and the society that tries, convicts and houses them (there's an great little moment showing how the prisoners have to pick up their suitcases before going into the prison), and how 'normal' citizens also have a kind of repression that comes out in spurts, like with the old married couple who take in Yvon late in the film (the shot of the slap is significant, tying into Bresson's visual scheme of such acts being too easy to show on film). It's an intellectual stimulator, at the least, even as it does resist anything extremely favorable as an emotional effort. It's slightly cold and assuredly dense, but worthwhile for a certain kind of movie-goer.
In the modern jungle of the society presented in Robert Bresson's last
film "L'Argent" (The Money) the survival of the fittest gets translated
as the survival of the smartest person and the material for that is the
money in all of his forms. The one who has the money controls
everything, everyone, has the chance to buy and sell everything but men
are mortal and they end losing up his/her soul just to have the main
thing to survive among the living: money.
In his criticism about modern society, Bresson follows several characters involved with counterfeit money made by some bourgeoisie teenagers whose parents don't give all the money they want; and this same money will cause problems to a lot of people including the good guy Yvon Targe (Christian Patey), a simple man, living a regular life with his family until the day he almost gets arrested for trying to spend this money given by him during a business trade. Yvon escaped from being sentenced, but the damage was done. He lost his job, finds another one not so good by helping a friend in a bank robbery but this time he'll go to jail and will lose everything he knew of his previous life. The destiny has some surprises for him and for us while seeing how things will be developed with him and the other characters.
The environment and the circumstances of situations changes the man into a different thing; Yvon was a good man before all that happened; after that it's all downhill from him, including more robbery and even some murders. Here's a story about life, the awful pursuit of profit over the weakest, the dumbest (after all, Yvon received the money from the guy at the shop without looking if it was real or not), and how almost innocent pranks turned out to be the deadliest, the most striking events. Interesting also the fact about the wealthy kids who make counterfeit money, ask more money to their parents. One of them has a great taste for suits, steal money from his former boss and then return some part of the money, claiming that he's generous, he'll donate some for the poor. The sense of irony in this moment is incredible.
Well directed, well acted and with a good screenplay, "L'Argent" on one hand makes valuable statements about the power of money with a positive simplicity, based on a work from Tolstoy (now, here's a man who really gave away all of his money to preach love among people). On the other hand, the most technical aspect of the film, the narrative makes two films in one that it gets dreary, confusing, and almost without any connection with what we were seeing. I'm talking about the last half-hour that didn't match so great as it could be, but at least Bresson proved his point by the violent reaction of the main character. I believe this conclusion was the reason behind the negative reaction from Cannes audience when Bresson won the award of Best Director, in a tied along with Andrei Tarkovsky with his outstanding "Nostalgia". While Tarkovsky was praised and applauded, Bresson got some boos from the crowd, and Tarkovsky being a great admirer of Bresson complimented, embarrassed the other director (I saw the video with this moment somewhere). It's a very realistic ending but most people simply don't agree with what was showed in this change of moral behavior from such a sweet character.
Bresson and his last film tells many great things about the necessary evil money is and its disadvantages. 9/10
I just wanted to make a quick comment regarding the comment of
suekendall about l'argent. L'argent is one of Bresson's biggest
masterpieces. A merge of minimalism and strong observation. And as for
the actors in l'argent, they are not wooden, they are real. Bresson
made frequent use of non-performers to give his film a certain
authenticity. I think he succeeded in every aspect. It is a ground
breaking film which taught the viewer that it does require very little
to create a story. Bresson works demands the viewer's imagination.
Moreover, for everyone who has a keen interest in cinematography, this
film is a must. Bresson truly succeeded in making the most economic and
sensible use of the camera.
For everyone who does not like the film, there will be other films to enjoy...but for everyone who is willing to enter Bresson's world, this film is a true eye opener about film, art and humanity.
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