A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

L'Argent (Robert Bresson, 1983)

When does style become mannerism? And why is it that style is generally thought of as a good thing, and mannerism is often a pejorative? I found myself pondering these questions while watching Robert Bresson's last film, L'Argent. Bresson is one of the directors I most admire, so my first impulse is to admire L'Argent as a superb example of Bresson's austere style: his willingness to let the audience decide what's going on within the characters by restraining his actors' displays of emotion, the simplicity of his mise-en-scène, his use of ambient sound to do the job that other directors rely on musical scores to accomplish. He has a fascinating premise to explore in L'Argent, which he adapted from a story by Tolstoy: the horrible repercussions of the passing of a counterfeit bill by some schoolboys. They spend the bill in a photography shop, buying a picture frame mainly to get some real money in change. When the fake bill is discovered, the shop owner passes it off in payment to Yvon (Christian Patey), the young driver of a heating-oil delivery truck. When Yvon is arrested for passing counterfeit money, he identifies the clerk at the photography shop, Lucien (Vincent Risterucci), who gave him the money. But Lucien perjures himself, saying he had never seen Yvon before, so Yvon is convicted. Though he's given a suspended sentence, he loses the job that he needs to support his wife and small daughter. Unable to find work, he agrees to act as the getaway driver for an acquaintance who's robbing a bank, but is caught and thrown into prison. Life in prison does him no good, especially after he learns that his daughter has died of diphtheria and his wife has decided to start a new life. When he lashes out at a fellow inmate he is thrown into solitary. He attempts suicide, but survives and returns to prison where he finds that Lucien is also an inmate, having robbed the photography store and become rich through various forms of larceny. Embittered, Yvon serves out his term and is released, but he continues his descent into criminality, murdering the keepers of a small hotel and robbing them, and finally finding shelter with an elderly woman (Sylvie Van den Elsen), whom he also murders, along with her entire household. At the end, he confesses and is returned to prison. Bresson's dry, understated telling of this story gives it a kind of dreamlike matter-of-factness that a more florid and violent version couldn't achieve. But there are also moments when you become aware of the way Bresson is telling the story, moments in which, I think, style becomes mannerism, especially if you've seen enough Bresson films to recognize his particular way of dramatizing events. For example, there is one scene in which the camera focuses on a passageway in the Paris Métro: What we see for a long time (perhaps only seconds, but it feels longer given our natural impatience to want things to happen in a movie) are the foot of a stairway, the concrete floor and tiled walls, and the beginning of a passageway to the trains. Bresson holds on this empty space as we hear the train arrive and the doors open and people make their way toward the space, through it, and up the stairs past us. He stays on the space until people -- they are Lucien and two of his friends -- come down the stairs past us and enter the passage. We hear the train doors close and the train depart, and only then does Bresson cut to the platform and the train entering the tunnel. It's a moment of no real narrative importance, but Bresson's holding us there as it happens crafts a kind of suspense, a kind of anxiety of the quotidian that informs the entire film. The only problem I have with the scene is the way it sticks in my memory as an inflection of style. And remembering this moment at the expense of others more important to the theme and narrative of L'Argent makes me think of it as mannered. While it's still a fascinating and challenging film, Bresson's deadpan actors and his focus on emptiness lend themselves easily to caricature and parody, and I think he carries them too far in L'Argent, never finding the balance that make his masterworks -- Diary of a Country Priest (1951), A Man Escaped (1956), Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) -- such essential films.

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