(Another unpublished Bresson article seeing belated light (I'd earlier written on Au hasard, Balthazar, 1966), Journal d'un cure de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1951), Mouchette (1967), and Un condamne a mort (A Man Escaped, 1956), among others)
On bread alone
(Note: plot discussed in close detail)
The ostensible subject of Robert Bresson's last film L'Argent (1983) is money (hence the title), and in fact Bresson uses the pulling out, counting, and passing over of franc notes from one person to another as a kind of repeated motif throughout. But it's the love of the stuff that causes the real trouble (a distinction Catholic priests like to remind us of in Sunday mass) and initiates the central movement in the film, the downward slide of Yvon Targe (Christian Patey) from heating-oil deliveryman and husband to convict and axe murderer.
The film could play double bill to Bresson's earlier Pickpocket (1959), where Michel, the eponymous petty thief, traces an opposite course: already outside of society at the film's beginning, he makes his long and tortuous way to prison and a strange, ironic redemption (ironic in that it's when he's shut away that he finds spiritual freedom and human contact). The conventional wisdom is that Bresson was deeply religious in his early films, became deeply pessimistic in his later ones; Bresson himself, according to Colin Burnett's 2004 interview with crew-member Jonathan Hourigan, preferred to use the word "lucid"--implying that he believed his view of the world has become clearer, not just darker.
Bresson takes characters and incidents from Leo Tolstoy's "The Forged Coupon"--a story about the widening effects on several people's lives caused by the spreading of counterfeit money--and to some extent modifies them. In Tolstoy's story as in Bresson's film those who do wrong are not immediately punished, and those who are wronged are not immediately vindicated; the workings-out of fate (or God's will, as Tolstoy might put it) are more tortuously complex than that.
Where Bresson differs radically is in the emphasis and emotional reading he gives each story and its outcome--and I don't mean just the characteristically stylized acting of his "models" (so termed because Bresson never uses actors, never allows his performers to act in the conventional sense). In the case of the photographer (Didier Baussy) for example, he is saved by an unexpected act of kindness in Tolstoy's novella; in the film, the same miraculous rescue occurs, but the reading of the scene is more ambivalent; the photographer and his partner (Beatrice Tabourin) are as much insulted by the effrontery (the benefactor had stolen the money from them, and is actually returning a portion of the loot) as they are grateful for the gift.
In Yvon's case the changes are even more radical. Yvon on film is a conflation of the novella's Ivan Mironov, the man falsely accused of intentionally spreading counterfeit money, and Stepan Pelageushkine, the man who murdered him--a strange combination, you might imagine. Yvon shows the stubbornness and pride of the labor class: when accused he attacks his accuser; when found guilty and fired, he refuses to beg for his job back; when financially desperate, he resorts to being hired as driver in a robbery, is caught, and sent to prison.
Bresson carefully documents Yvon's transformation in prison, a transformation with no direct equivalent in Tolstoy. A series of letters (and we know how much Bresson loves the use of correspondence, and the reading of them) bring a series of catastrophically bad news; a fellow convict, commenting on Yvon's life, says philosophically "We fear death because we love life." He says this at the sight of Yvon face down on bed, weeping; it's Bresson's classic technique of having an act or idea spoken aloud same time he presents it onscreen--in this case, we see Yvon mourning his lost love. But weeping also implies an outpouring of tears, emotion, an outpouring that stops when tears and feelings run out. Yvon has lost much of his love of life, has also lost his fear of death--both of his own (he attempts suicide), and of others (he reacts to an insult by raising a hand intent on violence).
When released, he's a changed man, literally--he has become Tolstoy's Stepan, who thanks to the act of having killed Ivan (in the film, Yvon before imprisonment), has acquired a taste for shedding blood (When someone puts the question to him, Yvon replies simply: "I enjoyed it." Bresson's trademark deadpan performance style has never to my mind been put to a more chilling use). He's torn through the fabric of French society to end up in prison; inside (thanks to his antagonistic attitude towards fellow inmates) he's torn through the fabric of prison society to end up in a state of near-total isolation. When released, he's reached as low a status as anyone can possibly reach--has broken past (so to speak) all levels of civilization to stand alone on the other side.
Which might be the film's true subject--money not as a source of evil per se, but as symbol and operative medium (both fuel and lubricant) of a larger concept, civilization itself. Money here is the crust on which we all subsist on, stand on, and we'll do anything--lie, cheat, steal, kill--to keep that brittle, fragile crust from crumbling, and us falling through. Yvon has fallen through, and has found the experience strangely liberating--he kills, then carelessly spends the little money he has taken from the murders. Money has stopped being the motivating factor--it never was meant to be one anyway; rather, it was the signpost that marked where society begins and ends, a signpost Yvon has uprooted and is swinging wildly over his head.
Yvon follows an elderly woman (Sylvie Van den Elsen), presumably with the intent of robbing her, perhaps killing her; instead, she takes him in. It's tempting to see the kind lady as Yvon's second chance--his opportunity for redemption, in Tolstoy's terms--and at one point she does explicitly say "If I were God, I would pardon the whole world." She is reprimanded for this, however, even slapped (as is usual with Bresson, we hear the slap, not see it), and Yvon as a result becomes curious about her as a person. She explains that she cleans and cares for her father (grown drunkenly bitter after being widowed) and married sister. "Why don't you drown yourself," Yvon asks with the directness of the truly innocent "Are you expecting a miracle?" The housekeeper's kindness, especially in the face of her knowledge of Yvon's crimes, is well nigh inexplicable, unless you see them as being two of a kind--people who have been brought so low they recognize each other in their loneliness. I think it's telling that when Yvon lifts the axe he's holding the housekeeper looks upon him with a terrible serenity: she seems to see Yvon not as a dangerous stranger, but as a liberator.
Yvon turns himself in and the film abruptly ends--no credits, no music, just the crowd of men and women staring at the doorway where he just passed, staring even when Yvon is long gone; then cut straight to black, arguably the single oddest cut in the film (in all of cinema, arguably). You wonder if the crowd realizes that Yvon's arrest is incidental, that what they're really looking forward to is this black, blank screen, the way the housekeeper, gazing at Yvon, seems to be looking forward to the massacre to come.
In Tolstoy's novella, Stepan goes to prison and undergoes a gradual change of heart, made convincing by Tolstoy's detailed chronicling of the man's inner state; Bresson telescopes this, suggests that Yvon has already had his change of heart in prison, that he emerges from prison free of all illusions of society's essential goodness and necessity, that he goes forth with knife or axe in hand ready to free us from our miserable lives. Not exactly kosher Christianity, and Michel from Pickpocket (to name someone from an earlier work) might look upon this later incarnation of his character with profound horror, but this seems to be the kind of bleak conclusion to which Bresson has arrived, at the end of his career. If there's a note of hope at all in all this, it's in Yvon's willingness to turn himself in; he of all the characters in the film, from the photographer to the counterfeiting youths to the photo shopkeeper to the shop assistant, feels the urge to answer for his actions. He, of all the characters in the film, seems to have arrived at a state of terminal lucidity.