“I’ll be a good guy when I’m rich.”
-Dialogue from L’Argent
The Apostle Paul wrote, in his first letter to Timothy, that the love of money is the root of all evil. The oft-deified French filmmaker Robert Bresson, certainly one of the greatest of all filmmakers, felt that Paul didn’t go far enough in his statement.
In his 1983 film L’Argent, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, Bresson – in his striking minimalist style – argues that the evils of money are less about the petty qualities of human avarice (which would belie far too tacky a melodrama for Bresson), but instead that there is an insidious, infectious evil contained within the very concept of money itself. By merely coming into physical contact with money – and in the case of L’Argent, it isn’t even real money; it’s a counterfeit bill – one is immediately and irredeemably stained. Money leads to trickery, lies, accusations, guilt, injustice, murder, and a complete loss of morality. It evokes nothing but cynicism from those that handle it, and offers no respite. L’Argent is one of the most damning litanies of human evil one may encounter. It’s also one of the better films.
Based loosely on a novella by Leo Tolstoy, L’Argent (Money) follows the comings and goings of a forged 500-franc bill, and touches briefly on the lives of all those it comes into contact with. The bill is first used to pay for a pawned stolen watch that a teenage boy nicks from his father. The bill finds its way into the till of a photography shop, and the owners therein attempt to pass it off even though they know it’s a fake. It eventually finds its way into the hands of an innocent gasoline deliveryman named Yvon (Christian Patey) who is arrested for trying to use the bill in a restaurant. At his trial, the people from the photography shop lie, and Yvon is thrown in prison where his meager life dissolves before his very eyes.
The film’s third act is about Yvon’s sad, bitter, mechanically amoral life following his release, and the crimes he must eventually commit. The crimes are, at first, an attempt to make ends meet, sparked perhaps by a need to fulfill some sort of financial debt Yvon feels was committed against him. Eventually, however, that perceived debt almost imperceptibly blooms into a sense of stagnant turpitude, a weary acceptance of a justice-free universe. Yvon does encounter compassion in the arms of a kindly hotel owner, but that compassion is tainted, Yvon finds, by an undercurrent of inescapable personal oppression. The film ends with a shocking act of violence that seems both unbearably tragic and boringly inevitable.
Over the course of his career, Robert Bresson repeatedly explored, in a deeply philosophical sense, the moral failings of mankind, often using unrecognized martyrs as the randomly appointed sponges of human ill. L’Argent, like all of Bresson’s films, features no smiling, no music, no flourishes. It is terse and unblinking. Bresson famously called his actors “models” and never discussed character or motivation with them, preferring to give them mechanical instructions as to how to move. For Bresson, every piece of ornamentation was a distraction from his message. He is going to sit you down and make damn sure you know what he means. And, in the case of L’Argent, he’s going to paint a bleak picture of moral downfall, cynicism, and hypocrisy.
And while this may seem like a depressing slog through the dirt, L’Argent is far from the impish, adolescent button-pushing of a Lars Von Trier. Indeed, through its silence and moral decay, L’Argent proves to be a striking and bracingly stimulating film. It’s a film that allows viewers to truly understand how little is actually needed to convey salient ideas and tell an effective, meaningful story. L’Argent was made in 1983, but it feels impossibly classical, ancient, and is certainly timeless.
Bresson, who only made 13 films in 40 years, operated with an aesthetic philosophy that is directly inverted to what we may expect from modern auteurs. Ordinarily, we may expect a filmmaker to develop their own arch style, creating visuals and techniques, only to apply the simplest and least complex ideas behind them. Bresson attempted, very actively, to remove all superficiality from film, ensuring that his style was an utter lack thereof, that the messages came first. This masterful approach has cemented Bresson in the cinematic consciousness as one of the elder statesmen of the form. L’Argent is as good a gateway into his filmography as any. I haven’t seen all his films, but I am eager to explore.
Top image: MK2 Diffusion
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and the TV podcast Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, Nerdist, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.