Money moves: on Robert Bresson’s L’argent

In our Autumn 1983 issue, the ascetic auteur’s final film was analysed in depth.

12 August 2022

By John Pym

L’argent (1983)
Sight and Sound

At the end of his life, Count Tolstoy, a great and wealthy man, took flight from his estate, from what he had made himself and from what the world had made him. He fell ill at a railway station; and there is a fragment of film – praise the archivist! – of Mme Tolstoy, who had gone in pursuit dressed in a manner befitting the wife of a great man (even one who affected peasant smocks), progressing with stately dignity along the station platform. She enters the room where Tolstoy is confined and the door closes behind her. What passed between her and the vexed dying novelist? What words of consolation or reprobation? We shall never know. But, as the door closed on the enterprising stranger cranking his camera, the mystery was fixed. The spectator’s curiosity had been perpetually aroused.

The title is unambiguous: L’Argent, plain and simple. Le Diable, probablement suggested metaphysical hanky panky: the meaning of the title was only revealed, if at all, in a half-heard almost deliberately thrown-away moment towards the end of the film. L’Argent, a modern, rigorous, predetermined moral tale, which uses as its starting point a Tolstoy story, ‘The False Note’, proceeds with a surety of footing which, right from the credit sequence (Parisian street noises, the hissing closure of the stainless steel lid of an outdoor cash-dispenser), belies the seventy-odd years of its maker, Robert Bresson. Although, as one would expect, the theme is other-worldly, the manner in which Bresson develops it reveals no flight from present-day realities or, indeed, from the course which down the years he has set himself.

Le Diable, probablement (1977) was set in the faintly ethereal world of yesterday’s Parisian dropouts. Superannuated hippies lolled beside the Seine strumming their guitars. The narrative touched on one matter, ecology, which had just missed its moment. ‘L’argent’, on the other hand, is today’s subject: the recession, European, worldwide, has for some time been biting home; what is perhaps more relevant is that we all now feel the pressure. For many people, from all walks of life, living on credit is no longer sinful, indeed has become an accepted means of survival. The sliding, ever-ready cash-dispenser is a potent symbol.

In other small matters, Bresson reminds us of the historical moment in which his adaptation of a nineteenth century Russian story occurs. His protagonist, Yvon, earns his living, at the start, by driving a small tanker, dispensing domestic diesel fuel. Early on Bresson shows us in detail – the hand in its industrial rubber glove, the self-retracting hose, the cap on the tank – exactly what Yvon does. We are reminded that this is the Oil Age: that the cost of oil is one of the determining factors in the economy of every developed country. The film’s soundtrack is punctuated by cars revving: the consumers of oil. Our attention is drawn to characters whirring about on mobylettes: pedal-power is, of course, no longer sufficient for today’s youngster. Instead of stowing away bicycle clips in one’s school desk, the crash helmet is placed on top of it.

L’argent (1983)

If one tried to isolate a single image which summed up Le Diable, probablement, one might come up with the interior of Notre Dame. The dominant image of L’Argent is perhaps the glass and steel camera shop to which Yvon makes a delivery of oil and where his road to ruin begins. The shop, its till, its layout, the cameras it sells, the boxes in which they come, the glazed cabinets, fix the period, the city, the mood, in a way more strikingly than the film’s timeless Bressonian locations, the court, the prison, the village house. Furthermore, the actual detailing of the images, the manner in which money is extracted from expensive wallets, prisoners are unloaded from prison vans (handcuffed and each led, like dogs, by an individual policeman), how a brandy bottle is hidden in a prison mattress, invests the story with a striking immediacy.

What then in the story itself so distinguishes L’Argent? It is plain in the way that, say, Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’s Tale’ is plain. It exists not for itself but for what we are to learn from it. It is told with vivid simplicity in 84 minutes, as though there were other pilgrims waiting their turn. A boy is denied extra pocket money by his father: he has debts at school. A friend produces a forged 500-franc note (a number have been circulating in Paris): they defy a woman assistant at the camera shop not to accept it after she suspects it may be a fake. The woman’s boss later reprimands her, and promptly hands it and two other forged notes on to the absolutely innocent Yvon. The forged money passes from hand to hand like a hot potato; and in the beginning one marvels at Bresson’s skill in not wasting time – the old studio skill of trimming and retrimming, or perhaps of editing before not after shooting.

The narrative itself is not faultless. The logical progression of the innocent’s downfall is at one point at least rather shaky. Yvon does not pass on the forged notes. He offers one in payment for his lunch, only to be told, peremptorily, that it is a fake; he then produces the other two in an attempt to prove his innocence. What, one might ask, is he doing paying for his lunch with, as it were, the morning’s takings? He should, surely, have paid with his wages.

But this aside, his downfall is sure and inescapable. He is had up for passing the forged notes, having failed to convince the police that the camera shop was to blame; subsequently loses his job; takes the job of wheel-man in an abortive bank robbery (and here Bresson impishly turns a trusted convention on its head); is sent to prison; finds himself before the governor for threatening a prison officer; attempts suicide in solitary confinement… on top of which his wife has left him and their infant daughter has died. As long ago as Un condamne a mort s’est echappe, Bresson proved himself a master of old-fashioned narrative pace. He has not lost his touch; and he can still deal the cards at speed.

L’Argent (1983)

We shall consider the end of the story in a moment. But let’s examine why it moves to its climax with such fluidity, what in part accounts for its uniqueness. The film is patterned with visual correspondences, an old Bressonian custom: we cut from door handle to door handle (this world is all of a piece, the door handle of the camera shop is in essence no different from the highly polished brass door bar inside the prison); from car number plates to cash dispenser codes (a world of meaningless numbers, in themselves as valueless as the forged 500-franc note).

There are, too, the performances. The familiar complaint that the players are not players at all, that they move like puppets, gaze at the floor (it has been said they gaze at the chalk marks), deliver their lines in a monotone, is heard again. But it is, with one or two exceptions, as untrue as it is beside the point. The stillness, if it needs to be reiterated, is part of the point. The Biblical figures – calm, unknowable, ‘expressionless’ – in the paintings of Piero Della Francesca give nothing away. If they could move, they would probably look at the ground. They are part – and again it seems an elementary point – of the design: agents of the moral. They are, to be sure, not Hawksian achievers (and I once heard a distinguished critic expostulate in blind fury in a crowded foyer at what he took to be the insufferable spinelessness of the youngsters in Le Diable, probablement), but they have for the most part a luminous, ‘Bressonian’ expressiveness which at times is as capable of exciting pity as Greta Garbo’s Marguerite is capable of moving the susceptible to tears.

Bresson’s method of address is, of course, familiar: the ‘non-performances’, the correspondences, the singular pattern of shots which focus on the middle third of his characters’ bodies, the love of the human hand. He has the habit too of interjecting startling moments of violence, which have the effect of breaking the fluidity. In L’argent, there are three violent moments (a fourth is, in a way, all the more shocking for not being shown) which match each other and signpost the film’s moral. (They are also executed with a breathtaking command of what can be achieved with the minimum of time, shots and movement within the frame. One recalls, in this respect, Joan’s interminable trial, the sameness of her entry, day after day, into the courtroom, the tedium which concealed the horror of her coming martyrdom: then nothing, the charred stake.)

As if to draw attention to the three moments of violence, Bresson avoids showing us another potential one, the bank robbery. We see crouching armed policemen and one of the robbers with a gun to a hostage’s head. But that’s all. To be sure, the sequence concludes with a car chase but this ends, after a lot of engine noise and a long-held shot of Yvon’s foot on the accelerator, with a conventional smash-up – the sort of melodramatic moment Bresson parodied with loving fidelity in the film within a film in Quatre nuits d’un reveur. This advances the action.

L’argent (1983)

When, however, Yvon impulsively attacks the man who has refused the forged note in payment for his lunch (the man’s jacket is suddenly seized; the next second a table is overturned; a glass broken; the tablecloth slowly detaches itself from the tabletop), a moment of action reveals a human reaction. The response to injustice is anger; but on another level, Yvon’s minor assault is merely an occurrence.

His second outburst takes place in the prison dining hall. Piqued by a fellow-prisoner, he seizes a serving utensil; a prison officer intervenes, Yvon raises the weapon and then, realising the futility of the gesture, shoots it along the stone floor. Again an understandable response to provocation, again simply an occurrence: in the split second that the utensil was lifted, it might have gone either way – and how would Yvon’s guilt have been judged, this young man from whom fate had taken everything and to whom it had given nothing? It is time to consider Mme Tolstoy’s closed door.

We have watched the progress along the station platform, now comes the moment when the door is closed in our faces. Money, Bresson suggests with a bold simplicity which arouses one’s suspicion that this is not what he is really getting at, is the great corrupter: greed leads to debt, leads to deceit, leads to dishonesty, leads to the downfall of the innocent. Yvon plummets just as surely as the three men in ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ who, seeking Death in a time of plague, find a pot of gold beneath a tree and are thus destined to kill each other in their purblind greed. But that’s not all.

The mystery is this. When Yvon is released from prison, he kills a hotelier and his wife. (We are momentarily taken off guard: he washes blood from his hands, carefully wraps up his soiled trousers… what can have occurred?) He then falls in with a simple saintly woman, who cares for a crippled nephew, his out of sorts parents and an ingrate father. She takes him in, a stranger, and listens to his confession of murder. She feeds him. She expects nothing from life. He picks a handful of cobnuts, gives her one, helps her hang up the laundry. It is impossible to describe the sublime beauty of this sequence, this epiphanous moment when the woman and the young man suddenly find themselves in harmony; just as it is impossible to convey in writing the effect of the lighted bateau mouche gliding at night along the Seine watched in wonderment by the Dreamer and the girl he will lose. I was reminded, ironically, by the shot of Yvon’s hand plucking the nuts, of the grandfather in Dovzhenko’s Earth affirming the wholeness of his life by picking an apple and biting into it. But for Bresson, of course, there is no wholeness on Earth.

L’argent (1983)

One night, Yvon, crazed, one might say, by the desire for money, axes to death the woman’s family and the woman herself. It is an obscene injustice. She is tolerant, charitable, uncomplaining, hard working. Carrying a bowl of coffee one morning to the sleeping Yvon, she meets her querulous father who slaps her for her foolishness at having taken in the boy: the coffee scalds her hand, but she says not a word.

Bresson is fearless in laying on the detail. Any other director who introduced a crippled child to demonstrate such a woman’s saintliness would have laid himself open to disbelieving ridicule. But here, after his introduction (and the purpose of this is plain), the boy is only occasionally seen. Finally, he lies helpless in bed: we are asked to contemplate his impending death for a moment or two. This death, which we do not see, is in imagination even more monstrous than that of the woman. Confronting the woman, Yvon swings back the axe as he swung back the serving utensil: for a second matters could go either way, then the axe knocks over the bedside light and blood spatters the wall. It occurs. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth. Yvon goes to a crowded, noisy cafe (and Bresson’s knack of changing mood and place to maximum effect works here with extraordinary power), takes a steadying brandy, and surrenders himself to the police. His confession spills out. One is left with the unmistakable impression that he has saved himself.

How can this be? The crippled boy, the saintly woman hacked to death, the whole family massacred, not to mention the hotelier and his wife. In the case of the woman’s family, only the dog is left alive to pass frantically from one body to the next. Surely there must be some human justice? Bresson delights in confounding our expectations. He excites our sympathy for the woman, but when she is killed denies us catharsis. He shuts the door, and we long – like the anxious dumb dog padding across the floorboards – for some explanation.

One can only imagine what passed between Tolstoy and his wife behind the closed door. An accommodation of some sort, for there is, of course, no resolution in life. Behind Bresson’s closed door, there is God’s unknowable judgment. The Sea of Faith has long since withdrawn, and we have accustomed ourselves to a world which has neither certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain. It is thus addedly to Bresson’s credit that he should in undiminished old age have created a fully achieved film disturbingly capable of putting the case for the profound irrelevance of mortality, the necessity for the testing paradox of Faith.

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