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L'Argent begins as if it will be a movie with a La ronde structure, where a weapon or a suit of clothes (Tales of Manhattan) changes the fortunes of those who inherit it. A counterfeit bill is passed about, leaving a wake of corruption wherever it goes. But this faux banknote changes hands only twice before Bresson's script stops to note the moral decay among all who come in contact with it.
A schoolboy learns that his parents will cover for his crime and that he can sneer at the woman he's cheated. The first wronged party sees nothing wrong with passing off his problem onto an innocent third party, whose reputation he destroys. A store clerk with rebellious instincts will see in his employer's selfishness the motive to commit a much larger crime.
Worst of all, a decent family is utterly destroyed. The delivery man Yvon is too proud to defend himself to his employers and turns to crime as well. His wife and child are left vulnerable, and the injustice turns him into a mass murderer.
Bresson's simple approach to his material reduces the drama to a series of arrivals and departures, doors and barriers, messages, letters refused and legal summons. Everything is observed at a slight distance imposed by a narrow lens; it's as if we were observing the actions of microbes in a laboratory. The acting is muted and undemonstrative. Ellipsis is used to skip major events and important action often happens just off-screen: A showdown during a robbery, a prison escape only heard through a cell door. We're invited to judge what we see but to keep our emotions at a slight remove. The savagery of a concluding bloodbath is only hinted at by several short cuts of murderous details and shivering victims.
We follow Bresson's narrative but I'm not sure we agree with his general thesis. The movie's title and key artwork (on the disc cover) stress that money is root of all this evil, when it simply seems that Bresson has chosen a rotten group of people. In the human chain we see nobody who does anything except for immediate personal expediency. Parents are thoughtless about their children except when it comes to quickly covering up their mistakes. The money hardly seems the issue, as these people were surely behaving badly long before the counterfeit money started moving. The shopkeeper is a crook and his dishonest employee obviously had an entire philosophy of criminal anarchy in place before the film began. Our upstanding victim, the delivery man Yvon, already has criminal acquaintances. Man, not money, is the root of all evil and L'Argent deals only with consequences and not roots.
What's really happening in L'Argent is that immorality flows between humans like ripples on a pond. Unable to recover his loss, the first thing a victim of cheating wants to to is pass the loss to someone else. The employee thinks that if his boss cheats, he should be able to. Yvon reasons that if his reputation is damaged, he has the right to live up to his new label as a thief. Where the dominoes break down is the idea that a wronged, hurt man locked in prison will turn into a conscienceless mass murderer as a philosophical reaction. This reviewer doesn't believe that crime works that way. If the events that befall Yvon (and he has nobody to blame but himself for some of them) push him over the edge into insanity, he must have been teetering on the brink anyway.
It's tempting to reject the thesis of L'Argent based on its unrelieved pessimism. The only positive influence is the wise counsel of Yvon's cellmate, who tries to get him to give up ideas of revenge. But besides that we scarcely see anyone behaving with love or even kindness to each other. Yvon's suffering wife has little contact with her husband. Yvon never gets the chance to tell his entire story to a single sympathetic ear. Life can be bleak but Bresson wants to blot out the possibility of goodness, as indicated by his abrupt, frustratingly downbeat ending.
The liner notes of Kent Jones say that Bresson's next movie, had he lived was to be called La belle vie, and speculates that it was perhaps to be a positive rebuttal to this film's darkness ... unless the title was meant to be ironic.
New Yorker Video's DVD of L'Argent is an excellent enhanced transfer of Bresson's film with very good color. The complex soundtrack makes much use of street ambience and traffic noise.
The extras are quite thorough. Kent Jones' commentary examines Bresson's style and unusual approach to filmmaking. Two French television interviews with the director at the time of the film's debut in 1983 show him to be articulate on the subject of his technique but not prone to analyze his own work. A videotaped piece with writer Marguerite Duras is little more than a couple of sentences of aesthetic endorsement. The trailer doesn't bother to sell this austere artwork as commercial fare. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, L'Argent rates:
Supplements: Audio commentary by Kent Jones; A video clip of writer Marguerite Duras speaking about Robert Bresson; Two video interviews with Bresson taped at the time of the 1983 Cannes Film Festival; Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 2, 2005
1. Savant note, 6/3/05:I've received an impressive note defending L'Argent and suggesting that my lack of enthusiasm for it is due to my unfamiliarity with the director. This is the fourth Bresson movie I've seen and I'm eager to agree, if only to partially excuse my underdeveloped opinion. Any reviewer reads like a self-appointed expert; it sometimes feels absurd to toss one's opinion up against decades of thoughtful insight by better-read critics - not that Savant has graduated from the status of reviewer to critic. It would be dishonest of me to say that L'Argent will be a great experience, but we're supposed to separate the good stuff from the chaff and the reader is right that I conclude too quickly that the movie is deficient. It's that way with a lot of art films - one sometimes has to read the literature to understand that the film is teaching one a different way to see. Savant is read by a number of truly well-read cinephiles who are obviously going to know more about many films than I do. I still try to write them as I see them. I figure that those who really care will know my taste and realign it with their own accordingly. That's the message - I don't want viewers that see L'Argent as holy ground to think I don't care, even if it didn't reach me.