L’Argent first published by Movie Gazette, July 14, 2005
Two schoolboys (Marc Ernest Fourneau, Bruno Lapeyre) use a counterfeit banknote in a photography shop. The shop’s owner (Didier Baussy) then knowingly passes on the bill to innocent engineer Yvon (Christian Patey), and when Yvon is accused of forging the note himself, the owner and an unscrupulous employee (Vincent Risterucci) deny ever having seen him before. Yvon is spared by the courts, but the damage to his reputation leads him to lose first his job, and then his innocence, his freedom, his beloved wife (Caroline Lang) and daughter (Silvie Van Den Elsen), his will to live, and ultimately his mind, as he pays society’s debt and then demands, if not redemption, at least some pay-back.
Even if Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) will always be celebrated as the film that most fully exposed the greed that dominated Eighties culture, an earlier, less mainstream film from the same decade offered a far more thoroughgoing examination of money’s quasi-divine power to save and to destroy. L’Argent is Robert Bresson’s fourteenth and final film, and arguably his sparest. Although its relatively brief duration manages to pack in courtroom drama, a car chase, a prison fight, and even towards the end some brutal murders, all these are presented in so unsensational, oblique and elliptical a manner that one often barely grasps the impact of what has happened until after the event. For Bresson is not at all concerned with superficial action, preferring instead to depict different ethical responses to an apparently arbitrary, irrational and hostile world.
L’Argent may be set in contemporary times, and prominently feature such new-fangled (for 1983) devices as the Automatic Telling Machine, but it turns out that this state-of-the-art gadgetry merely offers new outlets for desires as old as humanity itself. For at heart the film is a timeless parable of human corruptibility – indeed it is based on Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Forged Note, published posthumously in 1910 – and even if Yvon’s first stop after he leaves prison is at the Hôtel Moderne, the crimes that he commits there are driven by mankind’s most ancient and atavistic instincts. Adding to the film’s fable-like quality is the cast of non-professionals – or ‘models’, as Bresson liked to call them – normally used to bring authenticity and naturalism to his productions, but here, by contrast, seeming to wander through Bresson’s moral wasteland as though in a hypnotic trance, stripped of all distinguishing personality. Here we see Everyman (and Everywoman) engaging in a not-so-free exchange of cash and justice, and as the good end up paying for others’ crimes, Bresson reveals that the age-old problem of evil still has currency.
L’Argent is blank in style and bleak in message. Its final image – and this is really not giving anything away – is of a crowd of people continuing to stare at a doorway as though waiting for some further revelation (or indeed Revelation) to emerge. It is an ending which reflects both the human condition, and the relationship between the film and its viewers – for the harshly absurd universe that Bresson has crafted leaves us all waiting for some sort of comforting pay-off or redemptive significance that may, or may not, eventually come. Yet like money itself, the value of L’Argent is no more or less than what one is willing to give it. Invest some time and thought into this film’s moral and theological concerns, and you may come away the richer for it.
Strap: Robert Bresson’s final film forges a mesmerisingly blank cheque which viewers must complete with their own value.