Tim Cawkwell's Cinema
L’ ARGENT: AN INTRODUCTION
Are you Bresson-wise or Bresson virgins? If the latter, here are some aids to appreciating L’Argent. This is a film which may puzzle you on first viewing, but on deep acquaintance reveals great riches.
Firstly, Robert Bresson was an admirer of the philosopher Blaise Pascal, who he regarded as “for everyone”. A noted Pascal sound bite (which translates pensée in meretricious fashion) is, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows not of.” When you see some of the things people do in this film, bear that in mind.
The second point to make is that as a general rule there are four elements in a film: images, words spoken, music and sounds. All are in L’Argent, although only just, for music only appears when Bach’s ‘Chromatic Fantasy’ is played by one of the characters towards the end of the film. Otherwise – and unusually – music is not used at all. However, sounds are as important as images for Bresson, and he wants us to be sensitive to their presence and to interpret them creatively.
Thirdly, look out for doors. In many films opening the door is a shot to be jumped over, but in Bresson the act is crucial, not just to the grammar of the film but in suggesting many things, most notably the act of free will by a character to do something which in this film is nearly always sinful.
The subject of doors opening brings us to the key element of Bresson’s style in L’Argent. There is a distinction in literary criticism between paratactical and syntactical style. To oversimplify, the latter uses main clauses elaborated with sub-clauses to capture the complexity of human thought and action. The supreme example of such a stylist must be Marcel Proust in In Search of Lost Time.
The paratactical style on the other hand is very simply constructed as a series of main clauses, and two outstanding examples of its use are in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament, and the Gospels in the New Testament. Take Genesis 28.10-22 (in the 1611 version), for the sake of example, which describes the vision of Jacob’s ladder. Virtually every verse begins with an “and” in order to describe a series of actions, one leading on to the next: “And Jacob went out. . . And he lighted upon. . . And he dreamed. . . And behold the Lord. . .” and so on. What has this got to do with Bresson? Well, he is the supreme paratactician of cinema, and L’Argent is the supreme paratactic film. The narrative is a series of incidents, one following another in relentless succession, relentless because although every character has the will to break the cycle of descent for Yvon, none – except one – uses it to do this. As a narrative, the film is not rushed but don’t shut your eyes because each shot leads to the next, and to miss one is to break a connecting chain. That brings us back to doors, because each door opening is Bresson’s way of saying, “And then… And then… And then…”
Some Bressonians argue that the film is a pessimistic conclusion to his film-making career. Bresson himself said that he was not getting more pessimistic, just more lucid. One way of understanding this is to compare what happens with Rembrandt’s self-portraits. As Rembrandt got older, the paintings reveal a man marked not just by age but by life, yet they remain true to the human condition, and one could argue that they became more truthful as he got older, aided by a greater lucidity in depicting himself. Similarly Bresson became clearer as he went on about how he should depict human behaviour. And there is something fitting about this being the last film he left us, not just for its lucidity, but also for the way he reflects a number of his previous films in it. Note for example the following:
- The end shot of Yvon giving himself up to the police matches that of Thérèse in Les Anges du Péché.
- Yvon tells the old woman, slaving for everyone in the family like Mouchette: ‘Doing all this work for others… You should drown yourself.’ Which is what Mouchette does.
- Michel and Jeanne in Pickpocket speaking through the prison grille are matched by Yvon and Elise in L’Argent, although with very different outcomes.
- The trajectory of Devigny in A Man Escaped is as relentless as that of Yvon in L’Argent, although the two travel in opposite directions, Yvon to prison, Devigny to escape from prison.
- The priest says the mass in prison, while prisoners use the occasion of the mass to exchange illicit goods. In Diary of a Country Priest, the priest keeps observing mass while his parishioners engage in callousness, cruelty, immorality.
- The trial scenes in L’Argent match the trial scenes in The Trial of Joan of Arc: the judges get it completely wrong.
- Norbert asks his father for pocket money, and is given it. He asks for more money, and is refused. In Au Hasard Balthasar, Marie and Jacques ask Marie’s father to give them the donkey, and he refuses, but then relents and gives her the donkey. From both points, the story is set in motion.
- Like the donkey in Balthasar, money in L’Argent becomes the medium through which human corruption is revealed. Human free will, not money/donkey, is the cause of corruption, and we witness that corruption through the lives of those handling the money or owning the donkey.
- Bresson is notable for giving some of his films either an emphatically urban setting, or an emphatically rural one. L’Argent brings the two milieux together for the first time.
- Religious themes in L’Argent are much less apparent than in the films of the first half of Bresson’s career but nonetheless they are there. They continued to engage Bresson right to the very end: it is an intriguing fact that after L’Argent he planned to make a film of Genesis, but was never able to bring it off. It is our loss.
Tim Cawkwell / 17.11.2006
For a fuller exploration of Bressonian religious themes, see my 'Filmgoer’s Guide to God' (Darton Longman Todd 2004.)