Saturday, September 8, 2012

Filthy Lucre

Film: L’Argent (Money)
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

The primary function of films naturally enough is to involve us in the lives of the characters. When a film shows up that is in some ways about the life of an object, it’s often an intriguing change of pace. Winchester ‘73 was based in large part on the “life” as it were of a prized rifle and its various owners. L’Argent (Money) follows the course of a counterfeit 500-franc note, at least initially, and shows how it affects the lives of those who touch it.

Really, it’s only about the bill for the first few minutes of the film, and focuses on the one innocent person who touches it as well as a few of the more criminal-minded people with whom it comes in contact. We start with a student named Norbert (Marc Ernest Fourneau) who gets his allowance from his father but needs more. Both of his parents refuse to advance him anything. He goes to a friend who gives him the counterfeit bill. They use it at a store which has received several such bills in recent days. They in turn pass off the bills to the gas man, Yvon Targe (Christian Patey). He is our ultimate patsy in this film, a man who is unaware of the criminality of those around him.

Yvon tries to spend the bills and they are refused. He is arrested, since the people at the restaurant believe him to be one of the criminals passing such bills around the city and have him arrested. Back at the photo shop, the staff refuses to admit that they even recognize Yvon, causing him significant legal troubles, eventually costing him his job. Despite having documentation to back up his story, he is accused by held liable for all damages. The people in the photo store are completely unrepentant at their behavior in forcing Yvon into this situation.

What we learn throughout the film is that everyone is crooked except for Yvon. The clerk in the camera store, for instance, puts his own (higher) price tags on items in the shop and pockets the difference. When he is fired for doing this, he walks out with copies of the keys to the store and the safe so he can go back and rob it later with his friends—who are the two guy sfrom the start passing the counterfeit bills, who is advised by his mother to deny everything when he is accused of passing the bills by the folks at the photo store, who of course denied ever having the bills in the first place.

All of this puts me in a strange position with this film. I have really liked Robert Bresson’s work in the past, but with this film, I find my credulity being strained to its limit. Certainly I believe that there are people in the world who act in this way, but I just don’t buy the entire premise of the film, particularly what happens with Yvon. Having lost his job, he agrees to act as a driver for an acquaintance on a criminal enterprise. He’s caught (of course), not really knowing what he did, and is sent to prison. On his release, he immediately goes out and kills someone. I simply find this difficult to swallow as a premise.

In typical Bresson style, there is a lot of time spent watching people do nothing. In fact, there were several moments when I was almost certain that the film had stopped or that I had inadvertently pressed the pause button because nothing moved for several seconds. We get a lot of tableaux. This is enhanced by Bresson’s penchant for offering us a cast full of people who seem to be allergic to facial expressions. Yvon is in a minor accident and captured by the police? His wife’s reaction to this is little more than a sigh—not even a raised eyebrow or a frown. She is similarly expressionless when he is sentenced to prison. They’re a matched pair in this—he doesn’t react to his prison sentence, either. I’m not entirely sure that anyone changed facial expressions at all during the entire film. This isn’t uncommon for Bresson. That works for something like A Man Escaped in which the situation required that people keep their visible emotions in check. It doesn’t work here at all. Instead, it’s really frustrating.

It’s a shame, too, because this story could be very moving and powerful. There’s plenty of possibility for emotion here, and much of it would be effective and could make the film far more compelling than watching what looks to be a group of people merely going through the motions of their existence.

Added to this is the fact that L’Argent is slow, and slow without purpose. Every 10 minutes of the film felt like 20 pretty consistently from the moment it started to the end. Sequences that could have been exciting, or at least interesting, were just more of the same, expressed with the cinematic equivalent of a lazy hand gesture and a yawn.

Ultimately, I couldn’t care less about any of these people. The main reason for this is that none of them seem to care anything about themselves or what happens to or around them.

Why to watch L’Argent: Because you should watch more Bresson.
Why not to watch: It goes to some very dark places.


  1. I agree with you. I really love some of Bresson'x stuff, but this one didn't quite click. I found this to be a shadow of Balthasar.

    1. I haven't seen that one yet, but I can tell you this wasn't a patch on A Man Escaped.

  2. I just saw this the other day and I thought it was spectacular. The turn to crime isn't explained psychologically, but I think it works as an inevitable turn to where the character would go in desperation. I thought this was a spectacular final feature from Bresson, one of his finest.

    I don't know if you've seen it, but the film does remind me a lot of the Dardennes film Lorna's Silence.

    1. We'll agree to disagree on this one, then. The reason, ultimately, is that I didn't buy the premise. Yvon had documentation to back up what he said, and it should have ended there.

  3. Considered as a conventional film, this is really bad. I see it as an art project, which excuses a lot of the flaws, even gives meaning to them. Except that even as an art project, it is pretty bad.