DVD Review: L’argent

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Robert Bresson | CAST: Christian Patey, Vincent Risterucci, Caroline Lang, Sylvie Van den Elsen
RELEASE DATE: July 11, 2017 | PRICE: DVD $18.03, Blu-ray $24.07
BONUSES: Video essay by film scholar James Quandt, press conference from the Cannes Film Festival, original French trailer
SPECS: NR | 84 min. | Foreign language drama | 1.66:1 widescreen | mono | French with English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video | Overall

The last works of major filmmakers are usually elegiac affairs, looking back at their childhood (Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander), meditating on old age (Kurosawa’s Maadadayo), or exploring the joys of storytelling and journeying to another place (Fellini’s Voice of the Moon). None of those approaches fit Robert Bresson (Pickpocket), whose L’argent (1983) is a tight, focused tale highlighting two of his favorite themes – man’s cruelty to his fellow man, and the fact that those who do good are ground under by those who don’t.

Although L’argent can accurately be described as very bleak in its view of humanity, it’s also a compelling story of greed and corruption, as well as being a deeply emotional (but avowedly unsentimental) work. For Bresson’s filmmaking style may have been austere and carefully thought out, but the best of his films – and L’argent is in the top half-dozen – have the ability to deeply move the viewer through the sheer economy of means and his emphasis on the small actions that make up everyday life (which fuel our attractions, betrayals and petty cruelties).

At first, the plot echoes the old anthology films in which the passage of an object from person to person inspires a series of different storylines (as with the coat that goes from character to character in Tales of Manhattan). Here, though, the passing of a counterfeit 500-franc note primarily ensnares one character, working-class oil delivery man Yvon (Christian Patey), whom we watch evolve into a full-fledged criminal when he serves a jail sentence for passing the note.

Bresson’s oblique framing, heightened sound effects, utter lack of a musical score (here there is only one piece of music, played on a piano onscreen) and non-professional performers whom he dubbed “models,” all enhance the emotional aspect, as we watch Yvon turn from the victim of a crime to a homicidal predator. As was the case with Bresson’s preceding film, The Devil, Probably (1977), there is no redemption here – the guilty and the innocent are both punished in the same fashion in this world (which consists of real locations in the city and the countryside).

Bresson’s films may seem the polar opposite of action movies, but his situating violence out-of-frame make the cruelty seem even more disturbing – at one point we only know a murder has been committed because we see the killer washing blood off his hand in a sink.

The most important crime sequence in the film involves no violence whatsoever. For L’argent is possibly the first, and still one of the only, films to show an ATM robbery. The crook first hovers behind the customer, seeing what code he punches in, and then the machine retains the debit card because of a device the crook has placed within it. So, while Bresson seems to have fonder feelings for rural settings (and earlier periods in history), he had the foresight to include an extremely modern type of crime in his last feature.

The same ATM figures in the shortest of the extras included here, the original French trailer for the film. Not a single character is shown as we see the machine’s portal opening (this is a “first-gen” ATM), then it dispenses cash and hands retrieve the money with a quick title card: “L’argent de Robert Bresson.”

An essay by critic Adrian Martin included here emphasizes the place L’argent holds in Bresson’s work. Martin delves into the themes found in the film and the pivotal presence of the titular object. “… the ominous ‘agent’ at work here is money: the workings of an entire capitalist system boiled down to the movement of a forged note and the unstoppable catastrophe that it triggers… What, in other hands, could be played as the premise for a screwball comedy… is treated by Bresson as the darkest tragedy.”

A lengthy print interview from ’83 is also included in the booklet. In this talk, Bresson stresses the importance of sound in his films (“I train the image to the sound rather than the sound to the image”), and laments the “careless indifference of people today.” Most important is the life force he had at 81. He notes to the interviewer, “There might have been times when my will flagged and was in bad shape, but today it is soaring… I’m in a hurry to work.” His plan to make a film of the Book of Genesis was his great unrealized project; he died in 1999 at the age of 98.

Film historian James Quandt wrote and narrates the featurette “L’argent, A to Z.” As Quandt moves through the alphabet (fudging a letter or two along the way), we learn that L’argent was the film that Bresson declared he was the most pleased with, and that the film stands as a summation of not only Bresson’s stylish innovations, but also his world view.

Quandt discusses several topics, but the best bits of info he dispenses are bits of Bresson “gossip,” like the fact that the great “ascetic” filmmaker had served as an in-house photographer for Coco Chanel. Also that a group of Cahiers du Cinema writers doubted Bresson’s claim that he never saw new films, so they hired a private detective (!) to follow him and report back on which films he was going to surreptitiously.

The most entertaining visual supplement is the press conference for L’argent at the ‘83 Cannes Film Festival. At age 81 Bresson had visible tremors, but he still had a no-nonsense attitude toward his work. To the charge that his later films offer no hope, he replies, “There can be no hope without desperation. Despair can and should be pushed very far so hope can arise.”

He cautions that the cinema “has to evolve…. Cinema must become an art… not the synthesis of other arts.” After getting annoyed by the overly simplistic (and admittedly unfocused) questions he’s being asked he finally confronts an audience member who seems bothered that he uses no professional actors in his films with the response: “Cinema cannot remain forever just ‘movies.’ Why do you stick with your movies? Aren’t you curious or interested in something new?”

Buy or Rent L’Argent

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”