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Posted 4 February 2000

by Gregory Avery

Written and Directed by Robert Bresson, 
based on the short story 
The False Note
by Fyodor Dostoevsky. 

Starring Christian Patey, 
Vincent Risterucci, Didier Baussy, 
Beatrice Tabourin, Caroline Lang, 
and Sylvie van den Elsen.

In May, 1983, two of the cinemas great "héros maudits" were present at one of the most disgraceful events in recent motion picture history. Robert Bresson had brought his new film, L'Argent (Money), a story about how two men pass a counterfeit note which completely destroys the life of a third man who had nothing to do with it, to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival. When the awards were announced during the closing night ceremonies, the competition jury, headed by American novelist William Styron, announced that, instead of a Best Director award, a "Grand Prize for Creative Filmmaking" would be given jointly to Andrei Tarkovsky, the exiled Russian director whose film Nostalghia had been shown at the festival, and Bresson. And when Bresson took the stage at the Palais des Festivals to accept the award, the audience soundly booed him. (Cannes festivalgoers are known to be vocal in their sentiments.) The man presenting the prize to Bresson at the podium, and who stood by his side during the tumult that followed, was Orson Welles. Both men looked disconcerted, and when the award presenters and recipients gathered onstage during the close of the ceremony, Bresson and Welles were not among them.

Four French films were shown in competition at the festival that year, and L'Argent turned out to be one of the least favorite, second only to The Moon in a Gutter, Jean-Jacques Beineix's fabulous train-wreak of a film and his first since the international success of Diva. (Gerard Depardieu, one of the film's stars, was quoted as saying, "The moon may be in the gutter, but the movie is in the toilet.") Bresson had cast Caroline Lang, daughter of French Minister of Culture Jack Lang, in one of the key roles in his film, something that was regarded as currying favor (despite the fact that Caroline Lang was perfectly fine in the role). But, mostly, Bresson was considered to be "out-of-fashion" -- something that, oddly enough, was also dogging Orson Welles at the time. Bresson was not a director who could've turned out movies like Armageddon or the big, fancy historical pictures and police dramas that can currently be found on French screens. Those were not the types of films that interested him, nor should he have tried to make them.

Robert Bresson, who passed away on December 18 at the age of 98, never made another film after L'Argent. The only French director currently working in something like the same rigidly formalistic film style as Bresson is Maurice Pialat, whose 1987 film Sous le Soleil de Satan (Under the Sun of Satan) was considered to be a direct attempt to imitate Bresson's earlier Diary of a Country Priest (1951), as both films concerned priests struggling to meet a spiritual parity in the mortal world, and both were based on novels by Georges Bernanos. Bresson's films had something of the upper hand, though: one critic commented of Diary of a Country Priest that, "Even completely unreligious people have been moved by this film." High praise, indeed.

Bresson's films also included Les Dames du Bois du Boulogne (1945), set in occupied Paris and with dialogue by Jean Cocteau; A Man Escaped (1956), a meticulous depiction of a prisoner trying to escape from a P.O.W. prison, and which was based on Bresson's own wartime experience; Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), a direct depiction of the transcripts of the trial of the Maid of Orléans, and which runs just over 60 minutes; Au Hasard, Balthazar (1966), known to have moved many audiences to tears; and, a film which was greatly influential on filmmakers in the Seventies, Pickpocket (1959), the ending of which Paul Schrader borrowed, twice, for American Gigolo (1980) and Light Sleeper (1992).

So, why the boos at Cannes? Bresson came to believe that actors in his films should be highly objectified, "mannequins" whose purpose was to carry and convey the action, and the meaning, of the film as a whole. While some of the performers in his films, like Dominique Sanda and Isabelle Huppert, would go on to become stars, after making Diary of a Country Priest Bresson stopped using known actors in his films, or original music, using instead passages from Bach or Jean-Baptiste Lully, which sometimes augmented his filmically austere style. Bresson's prize at the 1983 Festival was seen as an affirmation of this technique. It is probably not one that should be easily imitated; Bresson made films carefully, turning out thirteen films over the course of forty years, from 1943 to 83. But it is one which, as in the case of L'Argent, can work, and with devastating results.

Yvon (Christian Patey), a propane deliverer, receives a fake currency bill as payment for a delivery from Lucien (Vincent Risterucci), a clerk in a photo shop. When Yvon is discovered with the bill, the police are more inclined to believe the innocuous proprietors of the photo shop than Yvon, who, as played by Patey, has long, narrow eyebrows, a strangely unnerving look to his eyes, and a slightly wolfish, even predatory, look to him. He is reticent by nature, which makes even all the more suspect. At the trial that follows, he makes no emotional outburst and neither pleads for his innocence nor rages against those who have done him wrong. (He knows that he's innocent, so he doesn't feel that he has to elaborate on it.)

But, as events progress, his life is pulled apart. In quick order, he loses his livelihood, his child, his wife (Caroline Lang), and his freedom -- he's incarcerated for three years -- which is what finally causes the break in Yvon's character. He comes to believe that there are no rules, no ethics, because they only work for some of the people, or not at all, depending on the circumstances. (Lucien, the clerk seen earlier in the photo shop, has the same realization, and he uses it to put into effect an ingenious plan whereby he lays his employers at the photo shop low for forcing him to perjure himself during Yvon's trial, although Lucien does it for his own, not Yvon's, sake.)

The economy of Bresson's film style actually heightens rather than mutes the story's power and suspense. A jail break is depicted entirely through the use of sound and the light and shadow seen coming from under the door of a jail cell. We learn that a murder has been committed only upon seeing blood being washed-off the hands of one of the characters and swirling down the drain of a sink. The final twenty minutes of the film, done with short, almost abrupt, instances of dialogue, shows Yvon, after his release from prison, being taken in at the house of a woman (Sylvie van den Elsen) who tends to the needs of her family living there, and we see how Yvon comes to live with them. We do not see much of the family -- although one member, an aging pianist played in the film by a real pianist, Michel Briguet, turns up to play part of Bach's "Chromatic Fantasy" on an upright in the front room -- and the woman is uncomplaining about her day in, day out labor. She expects nothing; the work is there to do, and she has assumed the responsibility of doing it. Yvon bonds with this woman in a quiet, subtle way which is enormously moving, and which makes the final sequences in the film all the more devastating.

Do not get the impression that Bresson's spareness is slow and cumbersome: L'Argent clocks in at under 90 minutes, yet covers considerable ground. And during the past year, a retrospective of Bresson's films has been touring the U.S., Canada and the U.K., drawing considerable audiences, leading the estimable Jonathan Rosenbaum to observe that the success of the Bresson program "offered striking evidence that the apparent xenophobia and isolationism of American audiences [to foreign films] may be partly the self-serving invention of American publicists with million-dollar ad campaigns who don't want to intimate that other cultures and aesthetic tastes exist.”

In the same way that people seem to have become hungry for melody, thus occasioning the revival of recordings from artists ranging from Sinatra to Tony Bennett, Jeri Southern and even Louis Prima, people may have become hungry for films which have stories and characters to care about. Bresson did not make himself immune to human experience, receiving guests at his apartment on the top floor of a building on the Ile St. Louis, in Paris, and giving handwritten responses to any and all correspondence. He played piano until the "nimbleness" began to become absent from his fingers (he believed that all potential filmmakers should study music, painting and poetry, and, if possible, not attend film school -- something which, in some respects, I'm inclined to agree with, myself); the only time he did not see people was when he was his retreat, in Epernay, outside Paris on the Marne river.

Bresson initially started out as a painter, and he later admitted that painting taught him to make "not beautiful images, but necessary images." L'Argent does not stand as a marker for a career that was cut short, but, along with being a compelling drama, stands as an object lesson that "necessary" images can speak with the greatest clarity of all.

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