Robert Bresson’s final film, L’Argent (“Money”) is based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy (The Forged Coupon), published posthumously in 1904. In his later years, Tolstoy would come to repudiate his greatest works of literature - Anna Karenina, War and Peace - as bad or counterfeit art and believing that good art must communicate genuine truths about humanity and their condition, he dedicated himself to writing instructive stories with universal, moral messages. Almost the entire catalogue of the works of Robert Bresson is similarly dedicated to the passing on of “good art”, through stories that, without having overtly religious meanings, expressed universal meditations on human relationships with morality and spirituality – from Diary of a Country Priest (1951) onwards through Au Hazard Balthazar (1966), Pickpocket (1962) (based on the work of another Russian, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment), through to the almost documentary-like realistic treatment of the Trial of Joan of Arc (1962). L’Argent, made in 1983, appears to offer little more than a variation on the theme of “money is the root of all evil”, but the director’s artistry (and that of Tolstoy’s) means that the film communicates much more than this.
In order to pay off some debts and simply because his father won’t advance him any extra money, a young man Norbert, agrees to pass off some forged notes for a friend, thereby setting off a chain of events that destroys the lives of many people. The photography shop that Norbert and his friend trick into accepting the false notes, when they realise their mistake, pass them on to Yvon Targe (Christian Patey), a young engineer who carries out some servicing work for them. When he is caught using the forged notes in a restaurant, Yvon attempts to prove his innocence to the police and the courts, but due to some false testimony for the shop’s employees, he can’t prove where he got them. Yvon is spared any sentence, but loses his job. The incident however has deeper repercussions, not just for Yvon and his family, but for Norbert and his family, and for the employees of the shop.
Forever attempting to minimise artificiality and cut to the truth of actions and words, Bresson uses his customary “models” instead of professional actors and directs this straightforward story with minimalist precision that perfectly communicates the message and themes, perfectly aligning himself with the original intentions of Tolstoy and his approach to his work. Like Tolstoy however, Bresson’s sheer artistry cannot be hidden and just as Tolstoy relentlessly examines every action for deeper meaning and resonance, so Bresson’s cinematic technique similarly strips emotions and actions bare, unadorned of any falsity of technique, eradicating the distinction between aesthetics and ethics.
All this makes the film sound very formidable - a cold, deliberate, instructive meditation on moral issues that would scarcely pass as entertainment – but like the director’s earlier Pickpocket the film is utterly compelling, progressing through a bank robbery, a subsequent car chase, attempted suicides, planned prison breaks and murder, relentlessly building in intensity towards a terrifying conclusion. The sensationalism of what happens is however invested with so much more power and meaning because of the strength of the script and the lean precision in which it is presented. As ever, Bresson’s approach leaves it up to the viewer to provide the emotional response and fill in the elliptical leaps between scenes, and as such there is not a single shot that is without significance and not a frame of the film wasted. L’Argent, if you will pardon the choice of words, is a film rich in meaning that is derived from the style.
Artificial Eye’s release of L’Argent ports across the MK2 French release, which also has optional English subtitles, but can only be purchased as part of a box set of Bresson films.
The picture quality is rather soft, almost hazy in places, the print’s Eastman colours looking a little bit dull and faded for a 1983 film. There are however no marks of damage on the print, which is otherwise in fine condition. Digital compression artefacts are present in the transfer and can be seen occasionally in minor blocking and flickering of backgrounds.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is excellent. With little sign of hiss or distortion, it strongly carries the soundtrack, which is a vital accompaniment to the visual images and often replaces them, since action and sounds often allude to off-screen events. There are no problems with the effectiveness of this on the DVD.
Optional English subtitles are included and present no problems, translating the minimal, functional dialogue well.
Interview with Robert Bresson (TF1) (6:18)
A TV report from Cannes 1983, where Bresson won the Best Director award for the film, Bresson tells how his films are a continual striving towards perfection and truth in the art of cinematography. He again elaborates on his use of actors or “models” and his approach to making a film.
Interview with Robert Bresson (TSR) (12:56)
Again, filmed while publicising the film at Cannes, and directed (by Bresson apparently) in an identical fixed shot style as the previous interview, Bresson counters the suggestion that his films are too meticulously storyboarded by talking how he visits every day’s scene fresh looking for intuitive and spontaneous scenes.
Marguerite Duras (1:27)
Duras provides little more than an endorsement of Bresson’s work, its power and originality.
A short teaser, not made up of clips from the film, shows money being extracted from very old-fashioned looking cash machines.
The final film from one of the most unique masters of the cinematic artform is characteristically powerful and meaningful, whilst being crafted with utter naturalism and minimalist simplicity. As with Bresson’s earlier Pickpocket (and indeed Dostoevsky’s original Crime and Punishment), there may be some questioning about the rather old-fashioned conclusions reached by Bresson in his adaptation of Tolstoy’s similar explorations of the human psyche and the impulses that drive people to commit anti-social acts, but these issues are raised to be questioned and their impact is in no way diminished by modern psychological and criminal profiling – the issues raised here go to the heart of what it means to be human, and there are few directors that have examined the subject so well and uniquely as Robert Bresson. Artificial Eye’s release of the film on DVD presents a print that looks a little dull and dated and with fewer relevant extra features than on their releases of Trial of Joan of Arc or Pickpocket, but this is nonetheless a more than adequate presentation of a powerful film.