Show Me the Money
Just over an hour into L'Argent, a sudden burst of bright whiteness – Yvon's (Christian Patey) view of toys in a shop window – introduces a strange turn in the narrative and its mood. A grey haired woman (Sylvie Van den Elsen) who is much older than Yvon walks by, and an almost imperceptible glance passes between them. A few moments later everything, for the first time in the film, is green and natural: the woman steps over a little footbridge in a field on her way home, and the tiny, babbling brook below her fills the soundtrack with a nearly supernatural omnipresence. In the distance of the deep focus frame, Yvon trails behind.
The woman unlocks her door, looks off (presumably at Yvon), goes inside. Cut to Yvon, pausing at the bridge, and turning back. Then an ellipse to the woman later that evening, her dog growling with menace as she prepares a meal. Yvon simply lets himself in through the kitchen door and, at the woman's invitation, sits down. "I'm hungry", he announces, "but I can do without supper".
Mystery is a watchword in the cinema of Robert Bresson, but this relationship between Yvon and his benefactor is the most mysterious he has ever portrayed. Little is spoken between these characters, and not much more is shown about the nature and extent of their mutual understandings. From that first sidewalk glance, the woman seems to realise that she has a murderer on her hands. Her submission to him is all at once masochistic, spiritual and sexual in its impulse – not to mention, eventually, suicidal.
Is this old woman a Viridiana-figure doomed by her own foolish code of misplaced goodness, or a saint who brings momentary grace to a damned soul with her all-inclusive creed: "If I were God, I'd forgive the whole world"? As for Yvon, what is he by this stage of his pitiful, harrowing journey – an alienated madman, a cold manipulator, or a sad victim in desperate search of his own lost innocence? Philippe Arnaud describes Yvon as an exemplary 'refractory' hero of modern French cinema – contradictory, cryptic, unreadable, with a personality as fragmented as the film form that gives him a shadowy, fugitive presence. (1)
Nothing in the first hour of the film has really prepared us for any of these arresting complications. Bresson's fans and acolytes (from Paul Schrader to Benoît Jacquot) are used to reading the blank mode of acting in his films, the understated melodrama of the narratives and the economic restraint of the style as transcendental keys to an exactly opposite realm: a world of passion, spirituality and meaning. But L'Argent comes very close to a purely literal marriage between form and content. This world is meant to be cold and bleak, barren and bare, and most of its inhabitants are indeed unfeeling, amoral automatons. The first hour has a colour scheme to match the prevailing gloom: virtually everything, from suits to walls, is a dirty shade of either grey, brown or green, and there is little to spot or relieve the impressionist murk.
Even though the field through which the old woman walks is a modest patch of nature, it is a veritable, verdant paradise in comparison to the forbidding cityscape that has preceded it. The unlovely architecture of shops, courtrooms and prisons is matched by an equally harsh sound collage of alarm sirens, passing cars, whirring and clanking machinery (beginning with the auto-bank under the credits). It is a fiercely middle class world of bureaucratic institutions and service industries – the first rest stop for Yvon after his prison release is an ominous "Hôtel Moderne". The silent, dispirited bodies of the characters – especially Yvon and his wife Elise (Caroline Lang) – are frequently glimpsed pinned within the lines and bars of doorways and windows. The regal procession of disembodied gestures abstracted in what Gilles Deleuze once described as 'any space whatever' no longer carries the suspenseful or erotic energy it did in Pickpocket (1959) or A Man Escaped (1956); now every movement seems tired, listless, locked in upon itself, merely functional.
L'Argent is a profoundly disconnected film, never more so than in its penultimate sequence of shots where a dog ineffectually trails around the dark rooms of the old woman's house, discovering the traces of Yvon's cold slaughter of most of the occupants. Because of this pervasive disconnection, and the chill that accompanies it, it is easy to regard the film as Bresson's most secular and materialist work – a logical culmination of the despair about modern, industrialised life that some see enacted or symbolically reflected in Lancelot du Lac and The Devil, Probably.
In its first, forbidding hour, L'Argent resembles – as no other Bresson film so closely does – a Fritz Lang-style mechanism or trap. There is a steely logic to its closed circuit, as the 500 franc note forged by a trio of schoolboys triggers inexorably, step by step, the complete dissolution of Yvon's life, his gradual loss of job, family, liberty and soul. The film's title pinpoints its central 'agent': it is indeed money which animates and corrupts everything in this world – at one point resembling the excremental 'filthy lucre' which Norman O. Brown immortalised in his classic text Life Against Death (1959), as it spits out of another ugly auto-bank.
Everyone in the film is inevitably caught up in the trap which the omnipotent money-mechanism sets for them. (The sombre philosopher who shares a cell with Yvon paces, clutching a Marxist tome from the 60s, and laments: "ô argent, Dieu visible, qu'est-ce que tu nous ferais pas faire" – "O money, visible god, what wouldn't you make us do?") Like an exemplary modernist Everyman, Yvon takes the worst of fate's malign blows. The film is full of implacable linking gestures that ensure the efficiency of this poor patsy's demise – such as the letters from Elise to Yvon in jail, which the camera follows as they are cruelly, publicly passed from hand to hand. In one of the film's most striking (and most Langian) conjunctions, a single shot shows first the arrival of the van bringing the master young forger Lucien (Vincent Risterucci), and then the ambulance returning Yvon to captivity after his unsuccessful suicide attempt.
Although the Dostoevskyean elements of crime, violence and punishment – not to mention the face-off of a man and woman across a prison grill – seem to logically pair L'Argent with Pickpocket, the film in the Bresson oeuvre it most resembles is Au hasard Balthazar. In both movies, sleek, robotic, glamorous teens – this time gliding around serenely on mopeds – are like angels of death. More profoundly and pervasively, both films interweave a serendipitous plot from different characters and their distinct trajectories. With each surprising relocation of its narrative thread, L'Argent threatens momentarily to become the story of Lucien (with his Camus-like code of the acte gratuit, and his swift off-screen demise while daring to escape from jail), or the couple in the photo shop (clumsily scamming as best they can to survive), just as Balthazar artfully wavers between centring on the donkey, the girl, or the Satanic boy with leather jacket and transistor radio.
Although much of the narrative movement in L'Argent is subject to the same, grey laws of determinism which govern its overall mood, there are intriguing, surplus details that Bresson deliberately lets slip from the materialistic mechanism. The camera lingers on a man strolling along, reading a newspaper – his lazy action almost incidentally bringing us to the police who lay in wait for bank robbers. A wide shot invites us to speculate on the quotidian lives and stories that pass through a Metro tunnel before and after the flight of the trio of lycéens with their grand stash. A touching sidebar in the final act gives us a glimpse into the broken biography of a hardened, old man (Michel Briguet), the grey-haired woman's father, as he helplessly spills his glass of wine and remembers better days as a piano teacher.
Of course, an hour in, it is that patch of another green world ushered in by the old woman which gives us the greatest hope for release. This section of L'Argent builds to one of the simplest, yet most poignant passages in any Bresson film – three jump-cut shots of Yvon's hand collecting hazelnuts from tree leaves, and then the sight of him sharing his bounty with the old woman, as white sheets gently blow in the breeze. But this all turns out, somewhat cruelly, to be a temporary reprise from the doom of the modern world: far from being freed from his burden of alienation, Yvon has simply been biding his time and collecting the means to begin his final, bloody campaign of theft and murder – wielding an axe above his benefactor as he asks the spine-tingling question, "Where's the money?"
A friend once expressed his eager anticipation, before seeing L'Argent, that it would be the "ultimate arthouse slasher film". And there is something just in this description because, in its fragmentation and mystery, L'Argent does indeed strike one as a violent work, certainly Bresson's most violent alongside Lancelot. As a film about the making of a murderer by a capitalist society, L'Argent has an undeniable kinship with movies such as John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990). Inadvertently inaugurating a popular genre, Bresson's own portrait of a sociopath lays out the founding, primal ambiguities of such a tale – as when it momentarily flirts with conventional psychology by having the old woman ask Yvon, "Why did you kill them? There's always a motive for murder", merely to prompt the matter-of-fact, In Cold Blood-type response, "It gave me a thrill".
Bresson disposed of the second half of his source material, Tolstoy's novella "The Forged Coupon", in which (according to Richard Linklater) the maligned hero, "after participating in this circle of evil, eventually puts forth a contagion of goodness and redemption". (2) And he offers us a cryptic epilogue in which Yvon gives himself up to the cops at the local tavern – his passionless exit drawing stares from a blackened crowd. Like Godard in Soigne ta droite (1987), Bresson cuts directly from the severe chiaroscuro of this final image to a dark screen, no final credits.
The effect is bleak, even apocalyptic; no obvious redemption is anywhere in sight. Yet, if this ending can cause us to weep, that is because Bresson has allowed us to fully enter the same crucible of confusion which Jon Jost (another off-beat, avant garde chronicler of male killers and monsters) crystallised in a poignant, crucial image of The Bed You Sleep In (1993): the hands of a man who may or may not be a monster cupping water in a stream, and bringing it up to splash his face.
We intuit, in this modest cleansing of a self as in the sharing of a few hazelnuts, the profound mystery of beings who move through landscapes of dehumanising violence with their capacities for evil and goodness alike locked, invisible and unknowable, inside them – and we witness fleeting moments of absolute, natural purity in a world all gone to hell.
© Adrian Martin June 1999
1. Philippe Arnaud, "Réfractaires", a 1993 essay reprinted after the author's death in Les paupières du visible: Écrits de cinéma (Crisnée: Yellow Now, 2001), pp. 219-231.
2. Richard Linklater, "L'Argent", in Projections 4 1/2 (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), p. 244.