Watching a Robert Bresson film is always such an elemental film experience. He seems to wring out every bit of excess (exposition, dialogue, action and reaction) from the proceedings that it feels like a very unique film experience. There is nothing else like it. L’Argent was Bresson’s final film in a career spanning only 13 features. Bresson may have been the director least reliant upon cinematic tropes of any kind. He avoids melodrama, sentiment, emotion, and action. He doesn't rely on acting, flamboyant cinematography, or swelling music. He distills cinema down to observance. Pure and simple observance. In some ways, L’Argent is a recap of his career and a summation. In other ways though, it feels distinctly different from anything else he made. Perhaps it’s the ending of the film here that leaves a different taste in my mouth. It’s challenging stuff and Bresson at his most penetrating.
L’argent details a sequence of events and those people tied to the events. Two young boys pass along a counterfeit 500 franc bill at the local photo and camera shop. The owner realizes it’s counterfeit and in order to get rid of it, passes it along to a gas-man named Yvon. Yvon attempts to pay with this money at a café where the waiter calls him out for attempting to use counterfeit bills (actually unknowingly) and calls the cops. He is arrested but avoids jail time. Yvon loses his job though and thus begins a downward spiral for Yvon. As a way to make money to provide for his wife and child, he takes a job as a getaway driver for a heist. He is caught, arrested and thrown in jail. While in jail, his child dies and his wife abandons him. When he is released, he turns to a life of theft and murder.
Bresson is concerned with the evil in society and the fact that one person’s petty actions can severely affect another’s life. The fact that callousness and evil run roughshod throughout this film, without any sense of intervention from God, or friends or anything resembling grace or forgiveness is thoroughly Bresson and thoroughly part of his dogma. I always find his films to be filled with a sort of despair for society or despair for humanity. This is our world. We are lost. Yet even the way Bresson wants to show the action is resigned and reserved, as if Bresson, nor the viewer, can look upon the cruelty. There are a few examples of scenes shot so perfectly here it humbles me. The first is when Yvon grabs the waiter and pushes him down into the table, knocking plates everywhere. We are only shown the grab of the shirt and a quick shove, lingering on the shot of Yvon’s open palm. We hear the crash and then we see a shot of the table knocked over and the plates on the ground. We don’t see a shot of the waiter in the act of falling down and crashing into the table. It’s all about the intent and the aftermath, not the middle part of the action itself. Another sequence has a woman carrying a coffee mug. She is confronted by her father whom we see raise his hand to strike her face. The film cuts to a shot of her hand and the coffee mug. We hear the slap and the coffee spill on her hand. Again, we see the intent and the aftermath, but we cannot look upon the action. This sort of pattern plays out in the film in many other scenes as well.
What makes this film perhaps a departure for Bresson, is the violent lashing out of the Yvon character when after he gets out of jail, he becomes a murderer. Many of Bresson’s films end with the death of a protagonist, but it comes not at the expense of others per se. I’m thinking of Mouchette’s suicide in Mouchette (1967) or the priest’s death at the end of Diary of a Country Priest (1951), or even the donkey's death in Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). Those are moments of resignation and sadness, but in them there is also transcendence as those characters are no longer suffering. That's one of the great things about Bresson.....the way he finds the humanity in even the darkest or saddest moments. For Yvon, there is a different approach though…. taking the axe to a woman and her family (among others) who has taken him into their home and sheltered him. Is Bresson showing us the inevitable conclusion of a society built upon one evil act after another. Is this the logical summation of the chain of sin? Unless someone breaks this chain, is this where we end up? I think that this is Bresson’s most challenging work. It is not altogether tidy and it leaves a messy aftermath to deal with.