Doug Cummings and Trond Trondsen / robert-bresson.com
Region 1: New Yorker, 2005
For many, Robert Bresson's final work, L'Argent (1983), is a perfect formal and thematic culmination of the filmmaker's sporadic, but consistently provocative career. But its reception has always been mixed; at its Cannes Film Festival premiere, Bresson received a new prize (presented by Orson Welles)—the Grand Prix de Création—which he shared with Andrei Tarkovsky (for Nostalghia), and members of the audience booed the 82-year old filmmaker over the accompanying applause. (Cannes footage was dropped from the MK2 DVDs that provided the source material for New Yorker's disc, but the distasteful moment is preserved in De Boer and Rood's 1984 documentary, The Road to Bresson.)
Self-appointed guardians of fashion had dismissed Bresson as a member of France's vintage cinema rather than its contemporary cutting edge, but such a label could only have been applied by those unfamiliar with L'Argent's searing social critique and singular, fragmented poetry. Twenty-two years after its debut, it remains firmly embedded in the cinematic consciousness.
Although Bresson had previously adapted several works by Dostoevsky, L'Argent was adapted from a story by Tolstoy, "The Forged Coupon," which depicts the suffering that ensues from the use of a counterfeit check. It was an "account of how evil spreads," said Bresson, whose career had long identified a love of money as a primary human vice—from Michel's "misadventures" in Pickpocket to the heartless miser in Au hasard Balthazar, to the suicide's accomplice in The Devil Probably. And Tolstoy's terse and direct prose seems ready-made for Bresson's physical detail:
"After dinner the gymnasium student went back to his room, took the coupon and change from his pocket, and threw it on his desk; then he took off his uniform and put on a jacket. He picked up a worn Latin grammar text for a moment and then got up and locked his door. With a motion of his hand he swept the money off the desk and into a box, took some cigarette papers from the box, filled one with tobacco, rolled it up, and lit it." (trans. David Patterson)
Further, Bresson connects the financial swindle (and the subsequent bribes to obscure it) with the idleness and isolation of the middle class; characters seem obsessed with physical beauty (several nude paintings and a scantily clad woman feature in early scenes), an oblivious pedestrian stumbles into a bank robbery while reading his newspaper, and a steady stream of businesspeople and law enforcers perpetually misinterpret events.
"[M]y film is about today's unconscious indifference when people only think about themselves and their families," Bresson told Michel Ciment in an interview reprinted in James Quandt's monograph. "But it is not an anti-bourgeois film. It is not about the bourgeoisie, but about specific people. I am a bourgeois myself. I simply happened to have observed people like that. That's what I like about the Tolstoy story. People from other classes can behave in the same way, for the love of their children. They are not intrinsically evil, but their behavior has evil consequences."
The story is simple. A fresh-faced youth asks his father for extra money, the father refuses. The boy is then convinced by a friend to buy an item with a counterfeit bill and pocket the change. Later, after having discovered the ruse, the shopkeeper passes the bill (along with others) to an unsuspecting workman, Yvon, who is arrested trying to spend the false money. Taken to court, Yvon pleads innocence, but the shopkeeper and his employee, Lucien, give false testimony and Yvon is humiliated at work. Quitting his job, but still having to support his family, Yvon makes a series of tragic choices that land him in jail, break-up his family, and send him on a murderous rampage.
Bresson described Yvon as being forsaken by society, and the sense of injustice that pervades the film resides in its contrast between people seemingly protected by an exclusive system and a working class laborer who lacks the social leverage necessary for justice. In jail, Yvon burns with anger as his cellmate blithely tells him, "Someone fond of you protects you from afar. A relative or a friend, say." "I have no relatives, no friends, and no wife," Yvon corrects him. "Never mind," his cellmate answers, "toe the line."
Yvon's trajectory in prison is the opposite path taken by Fontaine in A Man Escaped despite the films' similar use of motifs: the rattling of keys, restricted points of view, and an emphasis on penal ritual and the covert ways in which it's subverted (a scene at mass provides the prisoners opportunity to trade contraband). While Fontaine begins the earlier film in solitary confinement and slowly establishes connections with those around him, Yvon is placed in solitary because of tensions with his fellow prisoners and guards and remains emotionally separated from them. Yet in Bresson's paradoxical manner, one of Yvon's greatest defeats is his lack of privacy; everyone, from prison employees to cellmates, intrude upon his personal letters and the details of his crumbling marriage. "Why are they all staring at me?" Yvon protests in the prison cafeteria, and twice in the film he hides his face while grieving, as if to escape the world around him.
Like the privileged teenagers, Lucien, the shopkeeper's employee, provides another point of contrast to Yvon. Tasting dishonesty, Lucien becomes a modern day Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor: "I'll be kind when I'm rich," he tells his cohorts, and after he's arrested, insists in court that he's a generous person. (For a director with a reputation for humorlessness, Bresson provides the judge with a wickedly funny response: "The investigation has revealed that, along with your love of good suits.")
But Lucien's criminal idealism (not altogether unlike Michel's elitism in Pickpocket) is cheap, self-serving, and continues the pattern of denial by the film's characters, dismissing personal responsibility. Lucien prides himself on the fact that his crimes were non-violent, and reaffirms that fact when Yvon threatens his life. "We're not killers," Lucien says. "We alone have no one on our conscience." "You have me on your conscience," Yvon reminds him. (In a previous scene, Bresson has one of his minor characters voice an aphorism that is, typical for the filmmaker, part profundity and part absurdity: "A man who hasn't killed can be worse than a mass murderer.")
L'Argent showcases the filmmaker at the height of his formal ingenuity, particularly his use of narrative ellipses and fragmented space (close-ups of legs, hands, objects). Having already dispensed with nondiegetic music earlier in his career, the entire film provides Bresson an opportunity for artful manipulation of the soundtrack. Passing streetcars, the crackle and jingle of money, the tinny roar of mopeds, the ringing of registers, the screech of sirens and whistles, and prison echoes are all rendered in precise and vivid terms.
"In a film," Bresson told Ciment, "sound and picture progress jointly, overtake each other, slip back, come together again, move forward jointly again. What interests me, on a screen, is counterpoint." Bresson's balletic tone could describe an early scene when Yvon is unexpectedly confronted by a waiter. Subdued dining sounds subtly decrescendo as Yvon stands and faces the waiter; a cut suddenly introduces Yvon's fast moving hand as he grabs the man's sweater and pushes him away with a swoosh; the image remains on Yvon's hand—an appendage which has begun its social revolt—while a loud crashing sound is heard offscreen; the image then cuts to the waiter's legs, steadying before a fallen table and broken dishes; after a pause, a car engine if heard slowing down and idling at close range and the image cuts to a police car later in the day. Bresson's counterpoint of sound and image continually emphasizes and intensifies the action.
Although the film contains a great deal of formal beauty, it's also an unsparing, severe work that follows its dramatic conflicts to their ultimate end. The bulk of the film's final scenes are set in the idyllic countryside as Yvon contemplates his compulsive desire for violence. The green grass and foliage, rustic sounds of birds and flowing water, and the appearance of one of the few compassionate characters in the film are unexpected relief. Yet the uncommon peace is a "quiet before the storm" (as Bresson described it), and the virtually silent, chilling discovery of an axe in a barn initiates Yvon's final, devastating violence.
Although many viewers have labeled L'Argent a bleak and despairing work, such a reading is often based on the film's violent climax and abrupt ending, and tends to overlook its closing reversal, underplayed and delivered as a coda in a minor key. For Tolstoy, it initiates Part Two of The Forged Coupon, which Bresson merely hints at. Yvon returns to the city and enters a café, takes a drink, and turns himself in to nearby policemen, confessing his violence with blood on his clothes. On the surface, the scene provides little counterpoint to the horrors witnessed just moments before. Yet, significantly, it's the first time in the film that a guilty person openly accepts responsibility for his or her actions and willingly submits to the authorities. For the moment, the violence has stopped, and in opposition to the film's consistent depiction of an aloof and distracted bourgeoisie, all the patrons of the café gather and regard Yvon and his situation with a hushed, intense focus. The world watches. It may be the faintest glimmer of hope, but in a film predicated on deception and denial, indifference and disconnection, it's a profoundly moving denouement that lingers.
New Yorker Video have utilized the MK2 region 2 release, thus including two short interviews with Bresson around the time of
L'Argent's Cannes premiere—one for TV1 with Alain Bévérini and the other with Télévision Suisse Romande—as well
as a very brief reflection by Marguerite Duras.
In both television interviews, Bresson stresses the spontaneous aspects of his method and the need for surprise and inspiration. Although much of what he says reflects the theories of cinematographic style he expressed elsewhere, it's always a pleasure to see and hear Bresson, one of the cinema's most reclusive artists, still spry and passionate about his work even at an advanced age.
Most significantly, New Yorker have added an audio commentary to their release by critic Kent Jones, an editor for Film Comment and a programmer for the Film Society of Lincoln Center. In 1999, he wrote a study of L'Argent for the BFI Modern Classics series. This is only the second commentary to be included with a Bresson DVD, and we found it to be very enjoyable. Although no commentary will compete with the depth and detail of a written essay, Jones' casual but observant remarks are admirably responsive to the film throughout (he doesn't simply read from his notes), cross-reference other films and filmmakers, encapsulate various interpretative schemes, and generally offer inspired analysis. They also provide a good introduction to Jones' book, which emphasizes the film's sensorial impressions and the specific differences between Tolstoy and Bresson's adaptation.
Like most audio commentaries, it should probably be avoided until one has watched the film a few times and developed a personal response, but it's a sensitive and informed critical interpretation, and New Yorker deserves kudos for including it.
The DVD Transfer
New Yorker's L'Argent is based on source material restored and transferred into the digital domain by MK2, with
some involvement by CNC, under the discerning supervision of Mylène Bresson. It was recently released in France
by MK2 as part of their monumental Pickpocket/Procés/L'Argent box set (which, incidentally, carries English subtitles).
Credited along with Mme. Bresson on the MK2 box set is robert-bresson.com collaborator Jonathan Hourigan,
through whom we were able to pass on suggestions (on audio pitch compensation for PAL speedup, and more) to the French.
The New Yorker DVD cover design is based on Savignac's original L'Argent artwork (very much thanks to New Yorker DVD producer
Cindi Rowell, in every respect a true Bressonian).
The URL to our article
Inside Bresson's L'Argent — An interview with crew-member Jonathan Hourigan
is included in the booklet. Also provided is a new essay by Kent Jones, as well as
a written appreciation by Olivier Assayas reprinted from the last chapter of the Cinematheque Ontario Bresson Monograph
(James Quandt, Ed.). Leonard Maltin, not wanting to be outdone, contributes to
Bressonian scholarship 4.5 stars on the DVD cover.
The original material provided by MK2, upon which the New Yorker transfer is based, is for the most part of excellent quality.
This becomes immediately apparent upon viewing the film as included on the MK2 box set (Region 2/PAL), of which the
recent Artificial Eye (also Region 2/PAL) release is a direct port. For more details, refer to the DVDBeaver
reviews of the MK2 box set
and the Artificial Eye port.
We have but one complaint against MK2: MK2 have cropped the film to a noticeable degree.
It is hardly disastrous, in this case, but it is a nuisance nevertheless.
The following plate is a comparison between actual frame enlargements taken
from the film (on the left) and
screen grabs from the New Yorker DVD, on the right. The frame enlargements are lifted from
the 6th Edition of Bordwell and Thompson's Film Art. This comparison shows that the
image is cropped on the right hand side. Bresson's image composition is compromised, as
peoples' heads are partly chopped off (as seen in the bottom two image rows, right hand side).
This cropping appears, of course, in all subsequent ports of the film (Artificial Eye, New Yorker), and MK2
alone have to accept responsibility for this.
We now focus our attention specifically on New Yorker's DVD presentation of L'Argent.
Our main gripe here is that the disc is not based upon a proper NTSC Master.
It has been sloppily transferred from PAL to NTSC, resulting in significant ghosting effects.
As we have already pointed out numerous times, these kinds of visual deficiencies are totally unnecessary,
as equipment is today readily available to properly deal
with PAL-to-NTSC issues if one should be forced to use a PAL source in the first place.
The following two frame grabs from the New Yorker DVD illustrate the problem.
The first frame exhibits
no ghosting, while the immediately following (1/29.97th second later) frame, shown on the right,
is clearly a superposition. Click to enlarge frames. We feel sorry for the Bordwells of the future: picking
just that one perfect frame for use as an illustration in a book may very well be impossible.
The encoding sequence used is, 4 clean frames followed by 2 ghosted frames.
(For further reading, see our article
Should I buy the PAL or the NTSC version?).
Because of its PAL-sourced nature, the film clocks in at a mere 81 minutes instead of the correct 85 minutes.
In NTSC-land, this ought not be so.
The color palette of the New Yorker disc is very different from (perhaps less balanced than) that of the MK2 original.
See the the DVDBeaver comparison.
This distortion of color-space could be an artifact of the contrast boosting which is also afflicting
the New Yorker disc.
Further, the MK2 disc exhibits more image detail than the New Yorker disc. A screenshot from the latter, seen on the right, shows this
lack of detail (a subtle blurring; click to see the full-size image). The soft image is perhaps not a major problem on a
small 4:3 television set, but the DVD is anamorphic 16x9 encoded, i.e., enhanced for widescreen TVs, and the
lack of image detail (in effect a degraded Modulation Transfer Function) will thus be especially noticeable when presented
(as it should be) anamorphically on a large, wide-screen TV.
In conclusion, those in Region 1 who are not yet able to play Region 2/PAL discs, or who find the cost of importing
the MK2 and Artificial Eye discs prohibitive, should definitely spring for the New Yorker disc. Compared to
past New Yorker DVD releases (case in point), it is actually of very good quality – and some love and care obviously went
into its production. Kent Jones' pleasant and unassuming commentary is a real bonus, not found on any other release;
completists and Bressonians on every continent will likely want to get this disc for that reason alone.