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.