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Film Criticism by David O'Connell

L'argent (Bresson, 1983)

November 17th 2014 04:08

How can one man’s life be so corrupted by a chain of innocuous circumstances? In director Robert Bresson’s final film, L’argent (1983), he assures us that the divide between upper and lower classes has never been more evident. When two young boys, clearly from families of wealth, pass off a forged note in a camera store, the owners decide to pass on a stack of recent forgeries now in their possession to a struggling working-class man, Yvon (Christian Patey). In turn, the unsuspecting Yvon uses them to pay for food elsewhere but is accused of the recent outbreak of phony notes entering circulation and duly arrested.

Yvon loses his job, a bitter pill to swallow for his young family, and when a friend offers an employment opportunity he immediately commits to it, agreeing to be present in a designated place at a certain time. He’s to be the getaway driver for bank robbers but with the heist foiled by police alertness, Yvon winds up in custody before being sentenced to three years in prison. Matters only head further downhill from there with a series of misfortunes that seem to transform him into a hardened, embittered man with an irreducible weight clinging to his soul, capable of doing anything to survive once released.

All of the trademarks from previous Bresson films, such as Pickpocket (1959) and Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), are present here, including his curiously intuitive selection of non-actors, ensuring stilted, self-conscious movements often at odds with the words the characters speak. His proclivity for aesthetically pleasing performers - or models as he referred to them - in place of traditional good looks is notable too, the intense, baleful glares of Yvon and Lucien, the assistant of the camera store owners, marking them with distinctive appearances.

Considering Bresson’s past work it’s hardly his intention to shed favourable light on the idle, elitist upper classes whose deflection of guilt, preserving their dignity through petty vengeance, allows a lesser man’s life to be clinically dissected and washed away. With calculation and subtle persuasion, the master director shows his disdain for them as their problems are made to disappear with financial handouts, even their slightest gestures having the power to harm those beneath them in the social order.

The owners of the store are later betrayed by their assistant Lucien, who had committed perjury on their behalf by lying about Yvon in court. “I thought dishonest people could get along,” he rationalises when caught cheating, exposing the bitter irony in how these upper classes don’t always get their way, equally capable of devouring one another, concealing the mercenary within - a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

The misery delivered upon Yvon’s life, stripping him of faith and hope, may be purely fateful for in Bresson’s world it’s as if a man of miniscule means, boxed into his corner, has to enact out some prescribed role, fulfilling his destiny no matter how dire. The final few scenes, played out in Bresson’s typically minimalist, detached manner, are still wrenching for their powerful insights, Yvon’s struggle to survive leading him into the arms of a saintly old woman who assures him that “if I were God, I’d forgive everybody.” Providing the solace and comfort of a saviour, and in keeping with the spiritual turmoil that Bresson regularly explored, she seems to fully comprehend the nature of the darkness congealing in Yvon’s heart and is willing to sacrifice herself in turn.

Inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s short story The Forged Note, L’Argent is economically shot with a sombre tone and deliberate lack of flair, but you still come away with indelible images from the last few scenes lodged in your mind. It’s another quality film worth rediscovering, and a fitting end to Bresson’s unique cinematic career.


A Place in the Sun (Stevens, 1951)

September 24th 2014 02:24

Based on Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy and the subsequent play by Patrick Kearney, A Place in the Sun (1951) owes much of its impact to director George Stevens and his uncanny casting. For the lead, George Eastman, he honed in on Montgomery Clift and the magnetic young actor proved to be a perfect fit for the humble, poor George whose wealthy Uncle Charles (Herbert Heyes) lures him to the big city with the promise of an entry level job to kick-start his fortunes. George initially falls for the first co-worker who shows an interest: Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters in an impressively deglamourized role) seems like the girl of his dreams: honest, decent, and dependable. The flip side of the coin is glamorous young socialite Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor, in her first serious adult role at 17), who exudes class and acts as an alluring, sensual counterpoint. Seemingly untouchable, Angela doesn’t even register George’s presence the first time they’re in a room full of people together, but as he climbs the first rung of his uncle’s company, their paths fatefully cross again. Despite the rock solid presence of Alice in his life, the temptation of the privileged Angela and the lifestyle that comes with her is too potent and George, intoxicated by the possibilities, begins a double life that will inevitably bring inescapable complications and an intractable weight down upon his conscience.

So many moments scattered throughout A Place in the Sun are used for portentous or symbolic purposes: the eerie call of a loon, the wind whipped trees outside a window in which a still Angela is framed; the recounting of a tragedy that will be echoed, fatefully, later on. These and more, each one brilliantly weighted and executed by Stevens, underline the discordant notes that are powerfully reflected upon Clift’s remarkably expressive, tortured face. As George slowly suffocates from the increasingly irrational, jealous Alice, Stevens often closes in uncomfortably; we see a visage racked with the burden of tortured thoughts, sinister motives and potential outcomes. On a boat with Alice, vainly attempting to create an illusion of life moving on, troubles painfully but necessarily tucked away, we watch George squirm, awkwardly resting against the side of the stifling, inadequate vessel. The water closes in, his forehead swims in sweat. Clift’s nerve in allowing body language and non-verbal communication to foreshadow doom remains a masterclass in method acting. At the same time, Michael Wilson and Harry Brown’s screenplay continues to underscore the deeper psychological roots festering beneath the surface.

The film exquisitely explores the conflict of inner and external forces as well as how the yearning to exceed our origins, to delve outside of our comfort zone, as in climbing social strata, can be like playing with dynamite. For George there is the holy temptation of a beautiful woman who can elevate him but, with a devolving glance back at the past rushing to catch up with him, blow him sky high. A Place in the Sun remains a remarkable piece of cinema, brilliantly directed by Stevens, and performed by all three leads. The chemistry between Clift and Taylor is obvious with the pair becoming lifelong friends and influential in each other's career. The film also features a remarkable, psychologically probing score from Franz Waxman whose best work from the Golden era of Hollywood filmmaking stacks up with any of the other great composers beyond Herrmann and Rozsa.


Vernon, Florida (Morris, 1981)

August 20th 2014 08:34

The story goes that director Errol Morris, preparing his second documentary, a follow-up to Gates of Heaven (1978), encountered a killer story in a small American town. Vernon, Florida was home, it seems, to a small but growing band of out there folk intent on lopping off the odd limb or two to claim insurance money. Smelling a juicy documentary in the works, Morris pounced but soon found his own life threatened should he appropriate details of their plan for the purpose of broader distribution. The director necessarily backtracked but still felt compelled to hone in on some of the town’s other residents, perceiving another interesting take on a shiftless place built on the colourful collective bursts of sporadic insights that both illuminate and muddy the shape of things in etching the life of a backwoods community.

The resultant 55 minute film, Vernon, Florida (1981) is a slow-moving, curiously compelling portrait of aimlessness and a strange devotion to the indefinable art of rambling. There are no articulate, insightful reminiscences, only a spate of locals whose verbal tics and storytelling gifts drift beside and well beyond the point. A turkey hunter provides the richest, lavish detailing in his tales of stalking that account for countless hours of futility, though the rows of creepy trophies he keeps lovingly tacked to his wall attest to the artful endurance of his gifts.

Deadly earnest in their telling, the lives of these locals prove to be authentic oddities, no less relevant for the decaying milieu and sociological context they pinpoint and illuminate in jagged, fragmentary recollections. A pertinent query – and one we might instinctively supress in our mind if it weren’t for the insistent, recurring nature of its source – might be, are these simple folk of sound mind? There seems ample evidence to the contrary but in sketching Vernon through its residents, Morris has constructed, modestly, an endearing confirmation of these lives in their time and place. An open air asylum it may seem, but there’s a low-fi poetic beauty to be plundered from these denizens of the deep South whose legitimate, distinctly American identities give them a compelling sincerity. For Morris, this would be his final calling card before his ground-breaking next work, the startling crime story The Thin Blue Line (1988), in which he redefined the form of the modern documentary.


Raze (Waller, 2013)

June 25th 2014 03:52



Dom Hemingway (Shepard, 2013)

April 29th 2014 02:31

Cheap Thrills (Katz, 2013)

April 23rd 2014 04:15

How I Live Now (Macdonald, 2013)

April 14th 2014 06:42


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