Originally published on In Review Online, this review is one piece of the critical retrospective on Bresson's films.
L’Argent will forever carry the weight of being the final film of a great auteur. Ironically, at the age of 82, Robert Bresson still had more films in him. In a paradox that was probably not lost on Bresson, L’Argent was his last film because of the lack of l’argent, or money, leaving his planned adaptation of Genesis (yes, the Genesis) unmade. Anti-commercial to the very end, Bresson’s forty years of fighting for funding came to an inevitable resolution. L’Argent is a pessimistic film, even for Bresson, but it is not a film from a man who appears ready for retirement. Quite the contrary; thematically and stylistically vibrant, the film won Bresson Best Director at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival.
Loosely based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy, L’Argent retains the original’s main theme of spiraling corruption. A bourgeois delinquent, unsatisfied with his monthly allowance, gives in to peer pressure and spends a counterfeit banknote at an unsuspecting photography shop. Bitter for being duped, the shopkeeper defers responsibility by passing the fake franc to an innocent deliveryman, Yvon (Christian Patey.) Latent deception is transferred from the most naïve pretenses of a boy to the much more culpable, and dangerous, manipulations of adults. From victim to culprit, the shop proprietor allows Yvon to suffer the burden of guilt. When Yvon is arrested, the shop assistant boldly denies ever seeing him before. It is a sloping downward spiral for Yvon whose life is torn apart by the fateful series of events.
It is no coincidence that two young boys initiate this devastating domino effect. Since 1967’s Mouchette, Bresson has been preoccupied with the plight of youths. But it's the intentional actions of the adults in L’Argent that create the social maelstrom. Getting caught has no repercussions for the boy other than a weak admonishment from his father. His mother actually goes so far as to ‘fix things’ with the photography shop with an envelope of money that exonerates her son from responsibility or guilt. Likewise, the shop assistant who perjures Yvon justifies stealing by taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Molded by the actions of adults and their self-preservation, in the eyes of Bresson the boys youth of the world a grim future.
A brilliant observer, Bresson uses the tangible world to evoke character and drama. His actors are physically engaged with the world but emotionally detached. This deliberate aesthetic couldn’t be more evident in L’Argent. Bresson felt that the naïveté of non-actors was more truthful than the false emotions of ‘trained professionals.’ The result is a jarring austerity that has earned Bresson as many detractors as it has fans. Despite the lack of sensationalism, L’Argent gains tremendous power through the vitality of the tactile world. Underlying the minimalism of the acting is the understated but richness of sound and image. It’s when the camera is diverted away from the faces that we see (and feel) Bresson’s masterful sense of detail. A friendly slap on the ass, a brief altercation between patron and server, a brusque moment causing coffee to spill from a bowl, and the abstract sounds from solitary confinement are all moments where Bresson uses aural and visual coding that is completely unique.
The majority of L’Argent ascribes to a moral ambiguity. Bresson openly displays society’s skewed version of guilt and selfish version of justice. Yvon bares the brunt of the damage and is left teetering between redemption and downfall. As Yvon befriends an older woman, his dark brooding face remains as unpredictable as the conclusion. He is caught between fate and free will, but ultimately finds the torrent of social corruption—in the form of money—too powerful to resist. It is within those last five minutes that Bresson offers his final blow: a sequence that is as poetic as it is brutal. L’Argent is not a film of absolution, but a dark film of decay.