Directed by Robert Bresson
L’argent was the final film made by French director Robert Bresson. He was 82 at the time of its release, and the film bears a lot of similarities to his most celebrated film, 1959’s Pickpocket. The earlier film was made at the start of the French New Wave movement, a time when young filmmakers popped up out of the woodwork, many of them previously film critics, and started telling stories their own way.
If there is a common theme among these directors, like Bresson, Godard, Truffaut, Varda, Rohmer, etc. it’s that they all saw the world differently than the films they grew up on and than each other. When you look at present day directors, like Scorsese or Tarantino or even Michael Bay, they all have their own style, but their films, I’d argue, are still grounded in a similar reality. Now, I know that the “Bayhem” of Michael Bay’s movies is quite different from a long tracking shot in a Scorsese film or the snappy dialogue of a Tarantino film, but their works all come from a similar, recognizable world. We only know the differences by the style of shooting, whether it’s lighting, camera angle or lens type, use of color, etc.
But with the French directors, their films seem to be born from different worlds. Hell, a Jacques Tati film seems to come from a different planet than a Rohmer film, for example.
In Godard’s Breathless, he chops up his film with jump cuts and jarring edits between shots that challenge our sense of space within his story. Something moves right, and in the next cut it’s moving left (an example of crossing the 180 degree line which directors typically try to maintain). The directors of this time period seemed like they were trying to challenge their audiences, but when they discuss their work, it’s just that they are reflecting the way they see the world. It’s only challenging because we are so used to a certain type of film language. We’re being weened off a drug we didn’t realize we were dependent on, a drug that offers us a familiar narrative arc, beautiful leading actors and catharsis at the end of the story.
So what’s the deal with Robert Bresson? Pickpocket and L’argent are both about people stealing money, but they’re so similar because of the mannequin-like nature of his actors. In the world of Bresson, people move and speak stiffly, almost without emotion. In L’argent, our main character, Yvon Targe, watches his life crumble before him, but he seems to have the same, icy, expressionless gaze at the beginning and at the end. We have to apply our own thoughts on what we’ve seen play out to have any feeling on the matter. Yvon offers us no clues as to how to feel, we supply that ourselves.
Bresson viewed acting as unnatural, for lack of a better word. Film as a medium is the closest art form to reality. The people and places we see look like the world around us, more than painting or photography or a play. Bresson saw any attempt of an actor to convey emotion as the application of a filter through which we would see the story, thus tampering the purity of the viewing experience. In order to replicate reality, he believed, you have to strip away the performance from an actor. They became models for his camera, repeating lines with no discernible emotion:
“With his ‘actor-model’ technique, Bresson’s actors were required to repeat multiple takes of each scene until all semblances of ‘performance’ were stripped away, leaving a stark effect that registers as both subtle and raw. “
Shmuel Ben-gad, who wrote about the nature of Bresson’s cinema and who, in his twitter bio, refers to himself as a “devotee of the films of Robert Bresson,” wrote that, “acting, on the other hand, no matter how naturalistic, actively deforms or invents by putting an overlay or filter over the person, presenting a simplification of a human being and not allowing the camera to capture the actor’s human depths. Thus what Bresson sees as the essence of filmic art, the achievement of the creative transformation involved in all art through the interplay of images of real things, is destroyed by the artifice of acting.” (http://www.crosscurrents.org/bresson.htm)
His actors, and thus his films, become minimalistic. There is no time given to looking at an actor’s face, trying to read a certain emotion because he doesn’t let that emotion appear in the first place. His films move with surprising speed, even if the plot often feels as minimalistic as his actors’ performances.
In L’argent, we’re introduced to a few Parisian youths, spoiled by their parents’ wealth. When one kid, Norbert, isn’t given as much money by his father as his friends receive from their parents, he turns to a friend who teaches him how to pass off counterfeit bills. One of the victims of this scheme is Yvon Targe, a hard-working middle class man.
It’s my opinion, I suppose, that Yvon is hard-working, and that likely says something about the way I see him and the world around me. Yvon is quiet, and he doesn’t complain. He doesn’t question the money that he is paid with. He just does his job and lives his life, and when compared to the spoiled teenagers, he comes off as saintly.
But Yvon is apprehended by the police for passing off the counterfeit bills at a restaurant. He claims to have been fooled himself, but he is taken to court, and though he isn’t charged with a crime, the judge warns him not to falsely accuse good people again. Yvon looks at the misled judge with the same glazed over expression he’s had the whole time. We don’t feel for Yvon because of his own state of emotions but because we know how we’d feel were we in his shoes.
Yvon finds himself out of a job, after this incident, and unable to support his wife and young child, so he accepts an offer to assist in a bank robbery which goes wrong. Accosted by the police, he is sent to prison for three years. All the while, he never seems to bat an eye or mourn his fate.
In prison things get worse. His child dies, and his wife leaves him. He holds onto this final letter, a sign of his anguish, and soon he attempts to kill himself, still with that same blank expression on his face.
Soon a boy is brought into the prison, Lucien, who was the one who originally fooled Yvon and put him on this downward spiral. Lucien vows to atone for what he did, having already become a Robin Hood type of figure on the outside, stealing money from ATMs and giving it to the poor. But Yvon rejects his offer, saying he would sooner kill the boy than accept his call to escape to together.
After his eventual release, Yvon robs and kills the people who run a small hotel, and this is surprising, again, only because of the lack of emotion he shows while doing it. Later he is taken in by a kindly old woman who feeds and houses him. Her husband cautions her against trusting this man, but even when Yvon confesses to his previous murders, she doesn’t seem to bat an eye.
Yvon will later grab an axe and murder the entire family, quickly and quietly and mostly off-screen. He calmly or emotionally heads to a restaurant where he voluntarily turns himself into the police. He is walked out of the restaurant as a crowd looks on, mostly silhouetted by the restaurant light and the darkness outside. After Yvon is taken offscreen, the crowd doesn’t move, their heads seemingly frozen still, looking at where Yvon just was, like mannequins that haven’t been properly repositioned.
L’argent sets up a world in which criminals grow out of a need for money. There is a reason, in other words, for their madness. Near the end of the film, the elderly woman who takes Yvon in even says that people must have a reason to kill. Earlier, while in prison, Yvon’s cellmate wails (with translation), “O money, God incarnate.”
The reason for everything that happens in this story, is money. The spoiled teenagers want money because their wealthy parents won’t give it to them. Yvon works for money, and when he is misfortunate enough to walk into the teenagers’ scheme, he resorts to crime to make money just to survive. Then he withers away in prison, and, stripped of a need for money combined with grief over the loss of his family, Yvon is effectively reborn. When he’s released from prison, he’s like a bastardized version of the money-seeking criminal.
Yvon now kills for money, seemingly an escalation of the same trajectory he was once on, but he has no real need for the money. When he kills the elderly woman, after having already killed the rest of the poor family, he asks where the money is, but it doesn’t seem to matter even to him.
He becomes a type of unknowable evil, created by our own culture, one which punished him mostly unjustly and, in trying to suppress such behavior, made it unspeakably worse.
In Pickpocket, Bresson followed a man who finds an underground world of pickpocketing criminals. Their behavior, granted it is a crime, is innocent compared to crimes we’ve seen committed in other movies and tv shows. In a medium of heightened realities and incredible stakes, we’ve seen people do unspeakable things, and despite the relative harmlessness of pickpocketing, Bresson portrays it as the worst possible thing one could do.
He handles the crime and the accompanying behavior with the sensitivity of someone discussing murder. The point, I’d say, isn’t so much about what someone does so much as the thing that compels them to do it. So it doesn’t matter if his main character is committing genocide or stealing a few loose bills, but it does matter why he is the way he is.
L’argent, then, is all about the origin of such criminal behavior. How did the protagonist of Pickpocket come to be the way he is? With L’argent we’re given one possible answer. Bresson seems to be saying that it’s our own flawed society that creates this problem. The poor are punished while the wealthy skate by.
When Lucien, brought to court over Yvon’s (truthful) allegations, gets off with no repercussions, it seems to be because of his father’s wealth. Later, Norbert’s own wealthy mother will pay off the woman he scammed earlier in the film, his crime washed away by his social status.
But Yvon is a working class man. He depends on what little money he makes while the teenagers treat it as part of a game. Yvon is marked, let’s say, by his own social status. He has much less leeway for error than the teenagers, and this is a societal problem, not his own.
In L’argent, Bresson says that money rules our lives, in various ways, whether we have it or we don’t. He strips his actors of any expressiveness, removing all filters and manipulations of the story, and what’s left is one final filter, Bresson’s own perspective. L’argent feels like an untainted glimpse into Bresson’s soul, his indictment of the world around him.