Less Is More: On Robert Bresson’s “L’Argent” (1983)

A shot from Robert Bresson's "L'Argent", depicting the protagonist (Christian Patey) being confronted about his counterfeit 500-franc note in a restaurant.

Robert Bresson is a master ascetic. In no other filmmaker’s oeuvre is value more clearly added by subtraction. In 1956’s A Man Escaped, he sets most of the narrative within the confines of a prison cell. He employs little music, no flashy shots, and no sophisticated editing techniques. Still, he manages to craft a more compelling experience than most prison-break movies because he does not tell his audience what to feel or try to distract them with excessive stimuli. What propels Bresson’s films to greatness is what he does not do. His refusal to partake in certain conventions shows viewers the superfluity of these tropes and how much more interesting it can be to play around them. This is an approach he never veered away from throughout his career, and which he refined in 1983’s L’Argent, a film detailing the events caused by the passing on of a counterfeit bill, and one of the best swan songs in cinema history.

As L’Argent begins, a young man from a well-off family (Marc Ernest Fourneau) enters his father’s study to request his monthly allowance. When he asks for more, his parents refuse, so the kid attempts to pawn his watch to a friend, who gives him a forged 500-franc note. The viewer is immediately struck by the performers’ unusual acting style. Bresson preferred to think of his actors as “models,” non-actors who deliver each line with a poker face, defying the scenery-chewing approach prominent in most films. One would be tempted to call these performances wooden were it not for the fact that this approach allows the audience to imbue character motivation and engage with the narrative on a more intimate level. This is the film’s first example of how the French auteur adds depth to his work by simply abstaining from what most filmmakers are doing.

The boys purchase a picture frame with the forged note, and we see people recklessly pass it on to other people until it reaches the hands of our main character, a young father named Yvon (Christian Patey). The rest of the film follows his life slowly falling apart after he is caught trying to pay a restaurant tab with the counterfeit bill. We see him lose his job, resort to a life crime to take care of his family, and end up arrested; however, the film never descends into melodrama, not only because of the understated quality of the performances but also because of Bresson’s matter-of-fact filmmaking. Every tragic scene is delivered without any of the emotionally manipulative techniques common in most media. Still, Bresson’s deadpan approach suggests a normalcy, which makes the misfortunes he frames all the more heartbreaking. He is not surprised by any of the mishaps his films depict, and he does not expect us to be surprised. This is just the sort of thing that happens.

In prison, Yvon learns that his daughter died, loses his wife, and unsuccessfully attempts suicide. The is the story of a working-class man whose life is destroyed by the neglect of more privileged people. However, just as the filmmaker’s skill elevates A Man Escaped beyond the confines of the thriller or prison-break genre, he raises L’Argent beyond the boundaries of the social or political critique. The film never feels like a soap opera, and it never feels like propaganda. Bresson is concerned with misery and hardship, but he manages to render these preoccupations into something compelling because he confronts us with the fact of suffering and offers no easy answers.

A counterfeit 500-franc note gets passed around in Robert Bresson's L'Argent
A counterfeit 500-franc note gets passed around in Robert Bresson’s L’Argent

Following his release, Yvon checks into a hotel, kills the proprietors, and steals the money from the cashier. We do not witness the bloodshed. We realize he has become a murderer only when we see him wash blood from his hands a few moments after entering the hotel. The fact that the violence is in no way telegraphed adds to the shock value of the scene, but it does not feel out of place. Looking back, we recognize we have been watching the story of a man who has been repeatedly pushed and that this escalation only makes sense. However, the viewer never feels that Bresson is justifying, or even condemning, Yvon’s actions. Bresson’s restraint prevents his film from making any sort of clear-cut moral statement.

After committing the crime, Yvon finds refuge in the home of an old widow (Sylvie Van Den Elsen) who lives with her drunken father (Michel Briguet) and takes care of her disabled daughter. In one of the film’s most memorable instances, the old lady carries a bowl of soup toward the shed Yvon is staying in, and her father, who is against her taking in a criminal, argues with her and slaps her. Just when the blow is about to land, Bresson cuts away. Not only does this give the audience a chance to envision the act and engage with the film on a more intimate level, but it also gives the filmmaker a chance to focus on a far more poetic image: that of the woman’s hands as they spill a bit of soup and try to regain composure. One cannot help but wonder—what is she carrying? With one small gesture, Bresson transforms what would otherwise be an unremarkable scene into something profoundly evocative.

The lady, like Yvon, has grown accustomed to a life of struggle. The difference is that she has not been broken by her challenging circumstances. She bears her burden stoically and still possesses enough faith in humanity (or naiveté) to try to help a fugitive like Yvon. Yvon is puzzled by her resilience and often questions her. We begin to feel this might be the start of his redemption arc, and in any other film, it would be. However, before we know it, Yvon kills the kind woman and her family with an ax and later confesses to a police officer. We do not know why he did it, and the film ends before we get any clarification.

For what explanation could Bresson possibly give? Bresson knows that the role of the artist is not to lecture or give clear answers to life’s absurdities but to pose queries that will aid the audience in their own inner exploration. His austerities work because they are not gimmicks that simply gesture at depth while actually hiding the artists’ laziness or lack of talent. His asceticisms are carefully designed to send our minds off in interesting directions. Robert Bresson is like a master sculptor who knows exactly where to carve the stone of convention to reveal an outstanding work of art.

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