Robert Bresson, The Sublime Minimalist Part 13
1983 // France // Robert Bresson
Criterion Collection (LINK)
Exchange of Sin and Absence of Redemption
If I have to pick the most idiosyncratic director of all time, I would definitely vote for Monsieur Bresson, who single handedly revolutionized the philosophy of cinema and championed the art of “cinematography” as his unique achievement. His last film L’argent, winning him the award for Best Director in Cannes, is the summation and extension of all his preceding twelve features spanning from 1940s to 80s (excluding his first comedy short film). Without a doubt there are drastic differences in both the style and the underlining subtext between L’argent and, say, Bresson’s first feature Angels of Sin (1943); but in its core, we could always trace back to the fundamental belief of Christianity, the persistence of faith in the absence of God, and a transcendence beyond a sheer change of heart or spiritual redemption.
In his bleakest and utmost bloodshed film L’argent, evilness and corruption take the most prominent role as represented by the existence and the passing of a forged bill, indicting that everyone shares the complex of guilt, even the ostensibly innocent. Based on the short story “The Forged Coupon” by Leo Tolstoy, Bresson transposed the material values of “money” into original sin and charted the downward spiral of a single man and his transformation from a victim induced by a random unethical manner to an offender.
The film in general can be divided into three acts. The first act contains the actions (passing of forged bills) between several characters, it illustrates the cause-and-effect relationship as the evil spreads from person to person. It all begins with a high school student Norbert (Marc Ernest Fourneau), encouraged by his schoolmates, using a forged bill in a photography store as a near childish prank. When the owner of the photography store (Didier Baussy) realises the forged bill, he randomly and knowingly passes it on to Yvon (Christian Patey), an oil worker, and later bribes his employee Lucien (Vincent Risterucci) to give false testimony against Yvon. Yvon gets into a fight with a waiter who accuses him as a punk spreading the use of forged bill, he is thereby arrested by the police and receives no justice when the court believes the false testimony over him. As a result he gets fired. Out of desperation with taking care his wife Elise (Caroline Lang) and raising their young daughter, he gets involved in a bank robbery and is eventually arrested and sentenced to prison.
The first act basically follows three young men of different classes and the people around them, Norbert with his parents belongs the bourgeois, Lucien is employed by a middle-class couple, and Yvon is the exemplary of working class. Each receives their own punishment unproportional to their class status. Norbert, after his parents bribed the owner of the photography store, is only grounded at home and his thread of story ends; Lucien is subsequently fired because of embezzling and, as an act of revenge, robs the safe of his ex-employers; Yvon, being at first innocent yet still capable of violence, experiences the greatest loss including his freedom and his whole family. Yet one could say the protagonist is the money itself. Nearly every exchange of money is in close-up, framing each person’s hand as it signifies the “sin” in action.
The middle section alternates between Yvon’s worsening situation in prison and Lucien’s “good-intentioned” thievery that puts him in the same prison. We witness the gradual declination of Yvon’s moral and the loss of his integrity by desperation and anger, his suicidal behaviour and his desire for revenge. On the other hand, Lucien involves in tampering of the ATM as to rob the accounts, and later spends the money as charity in the disguise of false sympathy in helping the poor. When they finally meet inside the prison, expected confrontation does not happen even though Yvon is eager to seek revenge and vows to kill him. Here the section ends with Lucien attempting to escape from prison, presented by off-screen sirens and the conversation between the agitated Yvon and his cellmate.
The last chapter is solely focuses on Yvon after he is released from prison, a huge ellipse in time. With all the anguish and violent tendency, Yvon robs a hotel by killing the hotel managers (again presented offscreen by hinting with the sight of handwashing in a sink with blood). In a fateful encounter, Yvon notices a gray-haired widow (Sylvie van den Elsen) emerging from the post office with bills and follows her home. She happens to be a saint figure, welcoming Yvon and sheltering him even though she knows his wrongdoings, she reassures him that he’ll be forgiven. “If I were God, I’d forgive everybody.” She takes care of her drunkard abusing father (Michel Briguet), her sister and brother-in-law and their crippled son without a single complaint. Like Balthazar, she is the exemplary of endurance and devotion to service. At one point her father slaps her (again offscreen) with the camera taking a close-up to her hands and the shaken cup of hot coffee with a slapping sound.
All the physical violence in L’argent, including the finale sequence of “massacre”, is all presented offscreen with the replacement of sound, close-up of hands, and the use of ellipses. Like the ending scene in Lancelot of the Lake (1974), an animal (this time a dog instead of a horse) diverts the camera to the trail of blood and the lying bodies, which ends with the woman calmly sitting on bed, and the axe sweeping across the frame, knocking over the lamp and splattering blood across the wallpaper. The sequence is tremendously effective and remarkable in its pure cinematographic narration, the sense of serene dramatically increase the tension of the horrendous violence which never directly visible onscreen. It’s not only a displace rage from Yvon but an act to destroy what the woman stands for, includes the integrity of family and the strong belief and faith on human kindness. She is the purest figure of Christianity.
The three-act structure exhibits how sin is spread and becomes infectious across the contemporary society ruled by money. The more general portrays slowly accentuates on a single character which peaks in a climactic confrontation between good (the woman) and evil (Yvon). Ostensibly the evil wins, but at the end, Yvon confesses the murders voluntarily to the police. Is it a sign of redemption as Yvon is finally “deflected” by the genuine sincerity of his murdered victim? Does it mean Bresson regain his faith in human nature and its capability in redeeming? Perhaps and perhaps not. The ambiguity leaves out space for us to pick our own belief, either you believe in money or humanity. And Bresson had created all thirteen features for us to ponder upon.