Thursday 18 May 2023

On demand: "L'Argent"

At the turn of the 1980s, the survivors of that mid-century golden age of world cinema began to ready their closing statements. Most had points to make. For Kurosawa, the biggest threat facing mankind heading into the 21st century remained war (Kagemusha, Ran); for Tarkovsky, it was the nuclear threat (The Sacrifice). Many of those points were valid. Yet it was Robert Bresson who arguably came up with the furthest-reaching final film of all, merely by taking a hard, unsparing look at the money in your pocket. L'Argent, Bresson's 1983 riff on Tolstoy's The Forged Coupon, opens with a vignette, and a prank: a schoolkid in hock to a contemporary takes delivery of a banknote forged by a pal to help settle his debts. In the subsequent succession of rapidly shuffled scenes, we lose track of where exactly the bent note is; it plays the same role as the ball in a street corner cup game. Instead, a kind of Invasion of the Wallet Snatchers paranoia takes over: suddenly, every note we see being palmed from hand to hand, hand to till, and till to hand in typically spare Bressonian close-up becomes an object of suspicion. And there's a lengthy run of knock-on effects: marital estrangement, descents into delinquency and crime and finally mass murder. The whole idea of currency - the trust we place in the papers we hand over for goods being worth exactly as much as the numbers printed upon them - gets undermined by one simple act of bad faith. Still to come: Black Friday, the dotcom bubble, Enron, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the credit crunch, and decade after decade of austerity and inflation. Right to the last, you feel, Bresson was right on the money.

The film's limitations are of its maker's own doing. Even this far into his career, Bresson was directing his performers into anti-naturalism, as if they'd been told what to say and do seconds before the cameras started rolling, and their stiff, first-draft responses were what the filmmaker wanted. (Christian Patey, who plays the accursed protagonist Yvon, slurps at soup like no-one else on earth.) That leaves L'Argent a little more of an illustrated thesis than maybe it needed to be: the human elements here can seem like nuts and bolts rattling loosely around inside these frames. Yet these are otherwise great frames: you could teach the film (many have) as an object lesson in how much can be conveyed without dialogue, fuss, flash or other adornment. Bresson refuses to shoot conventional action - indeed, he cuts away from a car chase, a prison fight and a slap to the face - in order to emphasise its consequences, and these redouble as the film proceeds. Quietly accumulating meaning and power, Bresson's sliver-scenes come to describe what often resembles a low-key apocalypse: one you might not notice if you'd failed to check your credit-card statement, and then wonder why you'd ended up on the streets, in the dock or debtors' jail, or with an axe in your hand and a body at your feet. Fascinating, even thrilling in its intricacy, L'Argent careens towards a that's-yer-lot full-stop of an ending: no fanfares, cold comfort, and a bottom line to be reckoned with. Our arthouse movies got a measure more cushioned and cosy upon Bresson's retirement and passing, partly because money itself was pumped into them. They didn't necessarily get any more instructive or resonant.

L'Argent is now available to rent via the BFI Player and Prime Video, and on DVD through the BFI.

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