Written & Directed by Robert Bresson
Money is essential for survival in our current system yet is the constant root of many problems. Theft is predicated on taking money from someone or stealing property that can later be sold for money. Homelessness results from not having enough money to afford rent/mortgages. Medical debt continues to explode across the United States. Inflation is driving up the prices of essential goods. As Max Bialystock once said, “Money is honey,” but it’s also a load of shit. Those with money essentially live in a different society from those who do not have it, able to transcend the Law and behave as they please. Those who must toil and labor are slaves to money, never able to take a break from working for more. Robert Bresson was a student of how humanity tortures itself and imposes strictures based on economic class. We saw this in Mouchette earlier this year, as a peasant girl is made to be the object of cruelty for so many.
Norbet is a privileged young man who loves money. He tries to pressure his father into giving him more than his monthly allowance entails but is dismissed. Eventually, his desperation leads him to try to pawn his watch to a friend who offers an alternative, a counterfeit 500 franc bill. They use it to buy a picture frame at a photography shop, and the employees only discover their error when it’s too late. The photo store workers pawn the bill off on heating oil delivery person Yvon. He later tries to use it to pay for a meal, only to be arrested for attempting to pass off a counterfeit bill. These people’s lives continue to be ruined by this bill, Norbet going deeper into criminal acts to score cash, and Yvon eventually ending up in prison after losing his job. At the core of all their woes is money.
Bresson has a very particular style that will not appeal to a more significant chunk of viewers. He viewed his actors as ‘models’ and found little interest in eliciting big expressive performances. Bresson believed the telling of the story by the director and the clear presentation of themes was the crux of good cinema. As a result, his actors can seem stiff; he liked to employ amateurs because they would speak up less about the performance.
Despite the lack of emotive acting, L’Argent is a profoundly humane story that speaks to the seemingly unending struggle of humans and their survival. It was also Bresson’s final film before his death in 1983, so we get to see a filmmaker who has honed and polished this type of storytelling for decades. He’d been working on the screenplay since 1977 (based on a Leo Tolstoy short story) and said of L’Argent that it was the film “with which I am most satisfied—or at least it is the one where I found the most surprises when it was complete—things I had not expected.”
For instance, we see things in L’Argent that another director would have played up, a bank heist. However, in the hands of this director, it is restrained, calm, and a study in the process rather than an outing to upset or disturb the audience. Bresson feels like a stern schoolmaster at certain moments, unyielding in the rigorous presentation of his subjects. But like great teachers, he wants to show a mastery of fundamentals and sees overly showy stylistic flourishes as reductive.
The character I was most drawn to was Yvon, particularly following his descent from a working-class family man into someone whose criminal instincts feel compulsive. The previous paths available to him have been burnt away, so he goes about stealing and killing because they are the only things left on the table for him. Even the kindness of a passerby offering him a place to sleep for the night is never acknowledged as a beautiful display of generosity; it ends with Yvon committing an egregious act of violence. But isn’t that the way of the world? Despite the parables and fables, we’re told about the importance of kindness; humanity overflows with brutality daily.
Yvon undergoes a sort of transformation once he’s labeled a criminal. He doesn’t have to go long before he sees himself being rejected by society for his accidental transgression. When it’s clear he will be refused the life and dreams he once had, Yvon embraces his criminal self, making a vow to show empathy to no one else. The same clinical detachment Bresson employs in his work is reflected in the unemotional way Yvon goes about killing anyone that stands in his way. This neutrality is a survival technique for the man not to feel the impact of his actions. When someone laments about why young people would behave so cruelly to the weak & innocent, it goes back to this. The criminals are products of their environment; to remain incurious as a society about why crime happens is to ensure that it will never stop. Believing the solution is merely a revolving door system of hollow punitive torture is absurd. As long as society clings to its misinformed concepts of meritocracy and the unquestioning sentiments surrounding our institutions, we’ll never see an end to stories of “senseless” killings. Our personal comforts hang by a thread, and all it takes is a single bad day for us to become like Yvon, both a victim & a perpetrator, forced to live in the absence of love.