Director: Robert Bresson
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
France, the 1980s. Norbert, a middle class teenage boy requests his monthly allowance from his father. When he asks for more because of a debt to a schoolfriend, his father declines. His mother too rejects his plea. He then pawns his watch to a schoolfriend in exchange for a forged 500 franc note. Norbert exchanges the note at a photographers, pretending to want to buy a picture frame. The manager discovers the forgery and passes the note on at the next opportunity to a gasman, Yvon. Yvon is caught trying to use the note and is arrested. When the police investigate, the photographers claim not to recognise Yvon.
Yvon loses his job because of the scandal. He acts as a getaway driver for a robbery but is caught by police and sentenced to three years imprisonment. His daughter soon dies of diphtheria and his wife leaves him. Upon his release, Yvon murders the owners of the hotel he’s staying at. Taken in by a housekeeper who looks after her mean widowed father and his disabled child, he confesses to his crime but she absolves him. He then murders the entire family.
Perhaps the least prolific of first rate film makers (although Dreyer would surely give him a run for his money), Robert Bresson directed 13 feature length films in approximately 50 years. Several of these films, including ‘Pickpocket’, ‘A Man Escaped’ and ‘Au Hasard Balthazar’ are widely acknowledged classics, possibly because Bresson refused to rush his craft, but also because Bresson is one of the most spiritual and humane film makers, inspired by his own strong Catholic faith, with a keen interest in salvation and the human soul.
‘L’Argent’ was made when Bresson was in his eighties but still feels vital and relevant, and the work of director still operating at the peak of his powers. Loosely adapted from a Tolstoy short story, ‘The Forged Coupon’, it’s a stark tale of greed and deception, the victim of which descends into a bleak downward spiral which finally culminates in redemption of sorts. The fate of Yvon, the luckless gasman, is decided by those who’ve sought to deceive through passing off the forged note but then evaded responsibility for it, protecting themselves and implicating others.
This chain of hitherto unconnected individuals starts with Norbert, the arrogant son of wealthy parents who is manipulated by a friend into using the forged note. In the exchange with the photographer’s assistant, he seems anxious and uncommunicative and it’s his friend who makes the transaction. The photographer doesn’t want to be the one who’s been cheated and out of pocket so he passes the notes on and of course ultimately someone is going to be wronged. Unfortunately for the well-meaning Yvon, it’s him and his life unravels rapidly from the moment he’s unwittingly caught using those notes.
Whether Bresson has any serious interest in class politics or not, I can’t be sure, but it’s interesting how the circulation of the note from wealthy schoolboy to respectable photographers to a working class gasman reveals much about social prejudice and the fallbacks and amount of self-protection each protagonist has. Norbert could quite easily have been blamed for the entire incident. The photographer’s assistant visits his school and informs the headteacher that a pupil of the school has passed forged notes. The assistant would almost certainly have recognised him and Norbert is asked about whether he was involved. His subsequent storming out of class is pretty much an acknowledgement of guilt. However it goes no further and his mother even pays off the photographers to keep silent. The photographers in turn deny ever seeing Yvon, let alone paying him with forged notes. It’s ironic that their lies are rewarded by the dishonesty of their employee, Lucien, who later robs the safe – to which the manager exclaims “you see how easily he lied in court!” Yvon has nothing to fall back upon, no means to defend himself, particularly when on trial and thus he’s sentenced harshly. He is fired as soon as the scandal breaks and once imprisoned, his child dies and his wife leaves him. It’s precisely because he is so vulnerable that he’s able to take the fall for another’s crime.
The central focus of many of Bresson’s films are the redemption of the main protagonist, whether it be the suicide of the saintly Mouchette in the film of the same name or the imprisonment of Michel in ‘Pickpocket’. Much like the latter, ‘L’Argent’ references Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, with the words of Yvon’s cellmate echoing those of Roskolnikov. Much like Dostoyevsky’s anti-hero, Yvon is capable of kindness and compassion but when fate turns against him, he finds himself more capable of cruelty and recklessness. Society has determined that Yvon is a criminal and he has acted accordingly.
There are two sets of murders in the final third which are interesting, both of which are shown with as little detail to the acts as possible. The first are in the hotel that Yvon stays in upon his release. We only know they’ve occurred because we see him washing the blood from his hands and robbing the till. However, the second set of murders could be considered mercy killings and demonstrate Yvon’s redemption. There’s more detail; Yvon moves around the house furtively holding an axe but the actual deaths are unseen, only made obvious by the desperate whimpering of the family dog or the destruction of a bedside lamp. Yvon then confesses his crimes – his actions in this part of the film directly mirroring those of Roskolnikov.
‘L’Argent’ is a remarkably economical piece of film making. Scenes are only as long as they need to be. Bresson never dwells, nor do his characters say any more than they have to. The framing of scenes is usually simple. For instance, during the conversation between Norbert and his father, never once are both in the same frame. Bresson cuts from one character to the other, never changing this style. Aesthetically conventional, Bresson sticks to his theory of “not beautiful images, but necessary images.” However, the real strength lies in the narrative and the psychological complexities of Yvon, as well as the deeper themes Bresson explores.