Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Visable God

"Money is an abominable idol. It is everywhere. The only things that matter are invisible. Why are we here? What are life and death?"
- Robert Bresson, in conversation with Michel Ciment

"(I saw) L’ARGENT, which was beyond awful. A cynical old man’s movie with every stylistic trope that would provide perfect evidence to back the case of all those who might claim to detest 'Art Movies.' Especially French ones."
- [NAME REDACTED], in an email to me

As previously documented, Robert Bresson is -- if I must choose only one -- my favorite director. Mainly, I think he's the one who has the most to teach anyone who wants to use moving images to tell stories. Over the course of his career, he whittled filmmaking down to its most basic (and deceptively simple) elements. While I think A MAN ESCAPED is both the most representative and accessible of Bresson's films and techniques, Bresson's swansong -- 1983's L'ARGENT -- may just be the apotheosis of his style. In fact, as my friend argued above, a case can be made for L'ARGENT being close to a Bressonian self-parody. While a plausible case for this can be mounted, I heartily disagree.

L'ARGENT is based on Tolstoy's novella "The Forged Coupon." A rich young man with Rick Astley hair (see above) named Norbert owes a classmate some money. His aloof parents decline to help him get out of his debt, so a scheming friend gives him a counterfeit 200 franc note, which they use to purchase an empty picture frame.

The proprietor of the frame shop discovers that the bill is a fraud and, rather than find the culprits, passes it off on a working class gasman named Yvon Targe (played with simmering roboticism by Christian Patey). Yvon is collared by the authorities when he tries to use the bill, the frame shop employees lie under oath to frame Yvon, and the die is cast.

The simple act of greed from the boys at the beginning sets in motion a torrent of sin that transforms Yvon from innocent victim to cold-blooded perpetrator in a terse series of mishaps. L'ARGENT is filmmaking concentrate and, depending on what concoction you mix it with, you could end up with a Coen Brothers film (FARGO, BURN AFTER READING) or a Dardennes Brother film (any of them).

"Feels like a final film" was the first note I made. But this sounds disrespectful. One read of L'ARGENT is that Bresson has so cornered his style that it has nowhere to go. It's like a series of simplistic, stick figure storyboards come to life. Another read would be that he's rubbing his Bressonishness in our face. It's a work of genius so effortless, it looks like he's showing off. "I can get away with this because I'm Robert F*cking Bresson!" Reading through the later interviews with the director in James Quandt's Bresson anthology, there's no merit to this. He put every ounce of passion into L'ARGENT as he had his previous work (it can be argued that this film is actually a return to form after THE DEVIL, PROBABLY). L'ARGENT was to proceed the director's never-realized dream project, an adaptation of the first few chapters of the Book of Genesis. (As so-called lost films go, Bresson's GENESIS beats out David Lynch's RETURN OF THE JEDI for the top of my alternative universe movie wish list.)

"Begins with the premise that human nature is, by default, rotten and inclined to wrongdoing. 80-some minutes of starkly beautiful compositions and dead-pan performances later, it ends with the premise that human nature is, by default, rotten and inclined to chopping up whole families with hatchets.

(By the way, I had to dock it a star because the silly "money monster" on the DVD cover art does not make an animated appearance.) **** out of *****"
- my 2008 capsule review of the film

"When I am working poorly, I am imprecise. Precision is another form of poetry."
- Robert Bresson, in conversation with Michel Ciment

My glib capsule review aside, L'ARGENT was the film that unlocked Bresson for me. I finally got what he was up to and devoured the rest of his available films. Marathoning my way through Bresson's filmography changed my DNA a bit. I cut reality TV for a living, so nearly every edit I make is arbitrary and disingenuous. Watching over a dozen hours of Bresson's precision reset my brain, cracked through my cynicism, and made me excited about films again. Jean-Luc Godard famously said that "Robert Bresson is French cinema, as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music." Godard is close; I would remove the "French" qualifier. Robert Bresson is cinema.

(For David Cairns' Late Show blogathon. I had to abandon this post early due to time constraints but hope to revisit L'ARGENT when I finally fulfill my promise to work through Bresson's entire filmography.)

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