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L’ARGENT (aka: THE MONEY) (director/writer: Robert Bresson; screenwriter: from the book The Counterfeit Note and short story The False Note by Leo Tolstoy; cinematographers: Pasqualino De Santis/Emmanuel Machue; editor: Jean-Francois Naudon; music: Johann Sebastian Bach; cast: Bruno Lapeyre (Martial), Christian Patey (Yvon Targe), Marc Ernest Fourneau (Norbert), Jeanne Aptekman (Yvette), Vincent Risterucci (Lucien), Caroline Lang (Elise), Sylvie Van den Elsen (Saintly Old Woman), Michel Briguet (The Old Woman’s Father), Béatrice Tabourin (La photographe), Didier Baussy (Le photographe), André Cler (Père de Norbert), Claude Cler (Norbert’s Mother); Runtime: 84; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Jean-Marc Henchoz/Daniel Toscan du Plantier; New Yorker Films; 1983-France/Switzerland-in French with English subtitles)
“A powerful and harrowing film that renews one’s faith that modern cinema can bring to light what no other medium can do in the same way.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Robert Bresson (“Pickpocket”/”Diary of a Country Priest”/”A Man Escaped”/”Lancelot du Lac”) made this brilliantly vibrant youthful film when he was around 80; this is his 13th feature film and his last one, in a career that spanned 40 years. He had plans to make an epic Bible film called Genesis but could never get it funded. Bresson who was born sometime at the turn of the last century (some say 1907 but, probably, 1901 is a more accurate date), died in 1999. L’Argent is loosely based on the novella The False Note by Leo Tolstoy (using only parts of the story while inventing the rest), which also turned out to be the banned author’s last work. It revisits Bresson’s former theme from Pickpocket about crime as a model for salvation and punishment a metaphor for cleansing the soul, but in this case the protagonist finds the truth of his life so empty there is no longer any sense of redemption. Instead the misguided innocent protagonist no longer has anything to believe in when his life becomes destroyed by circumstances that are out of his control, as he takes to extreme anti-social actions. An inherently corrupt society influences the way the young man turns out to be just as corrupt as his elders, as Bresson questions what we mean by innocence, guilt and redemption in a society motivated by greed and corruption.

At the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, Bresson along with exiled Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky for his Nostalghia, shared honors in winning the “Grand Prize for Creative Filmmaking.” Bresson was booed by the crowd, as the film had just as many haters as lovers.

Set in an undisclosed modern French city, it opens when wealthy schoolboy Norbert is turned down by his rigid father for an advance on his allowance to pay back a school loan. His arrogant schoolboy friend Matrial gives him a counterfeit 500 franc note and the boys brazenly pass the note to a photo shop even though the owner’s wife recognizes it as phony but, nevertheless, greedily accepts it because she doesn’t want to lose the sale of the frame. The photo shop owner berates his wife for taking the phony bill and then passes it onto honest oil delivery man Yvon Targe (Christian Patey), after he delivers fuel to the shop on his regular route. Yvon unsuspectingly passes the phony bill in a restaurant and gets arrested. Despite hiring an attorney to sue for perjury, the bourgeois shop owner refuses to recant his false testimony and bribes his assistant, Lucien (Vincent Risterucci), to back up his story. The court goes lenient on first-time offender Yvon by giving him a suspended sentence, but his tanker firm fires him for the scandal. Unable to find another job to support his bewildered wife Elise (Caroline Lang, daughter of the French Minister of Culture Jack Lang) and young daughter Yvette, Yvon makes a decision to reject his domestic life and turn to a life of crime. He starts his new crime career by a scam to rob bank cards by stuffing the bank machine with a shim and graduates to becoming a getaway driver in a bank heist. Arrested for that bungled heist, he receives a three year jail sentence. In jail he’s crushed to learn his daughter died from diphtheria and his wife has left him. Yvon moves to the country after his release and robs and chops up the hotel owners, which happens off the screen and is indicated only as he washes the blood off himself in the hotel sink. He then makes contact with an old-fashioned aging housekeeper (Sylvie Van den Elsen), and tells her he just committed murder. She reacts by saying, “If I was God, I would pardon the whole world.” She probably lets the mass murderer stay in her home because she no longer wants to live, as her unbearable burden in life is to care for her mean-spirited elderly widowed father (Michel Briguet, a real-life classical pianist) and his unhappy children. He’s a music tutor who lost all his pupils because he’s such a miserable drunk. The tragic chain of events culminates in Yvon becoming an axe murderer of the family, including taking out the saintly old woman after asking her to tell him where she keeps the money (again the murders are not seen).

Bresson is a great classical storyteller as well as a great visionary, who effectively loads the film with in-depth character studies, realistic details, and keeps the narrative rhythmic and tactile. The troubling focus of the story is on how the so-called respectable people feign ignorance and resort to being hypocrites, while the abused innocent victim eventually rejects the world and yearns only for some kind of spiritual release through a series of bestial acts. Evil cannot be explained away by any academic or psychological explanation, as Bresson is reaching instead for a religious miracle (related to Catholic dogma as a paradox) to determine if Yvon can save his soul or not.

It’s a powerful and harrowing film that renews one’s faith that modern cinema can bring to light what no other medium can do in the same way. The last shot of the numbed restaurant crowd looking on in silence as the police lead the confessed mass-murderer out through the doorway (an ominous symbol of change), is the final nail in Bresson’s case against the wanton materialism and runaway corrupt nature of society affecting everyone (therefore everyone is defiled who can’t freely choose what they feel is true–as Yvon likens himself to the dehumanized forgers by also choosing a false way to live as he attempts to get money any way he can).

New Yorker Films is to be credited for releasing this gorgeously packaged DVD that includes two rare and invaluable interviews of Bresson.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”