Director: Robert Bresson
Writer: Robert Bresson; based The Forged Coupon by Leo Tolstoy
Cinematographer: Pasqualino De Santis and Emmanuel Machuel
Producer: Jean-Marc Henchoz and Daniel Toscan du Plantier
by Jon Cvack
Coincidentally, just a few weeks prior to watching this film, I had viewed the 2019 Hollywood Reporter Writers Roundtable. It was a pretty interesting discussion, featuring amongst others, Paul Schrader, who mentioned that the inspiration for Taxi Driver (1976) had come from Bresson films - specifically mentioning Pickpocket (1959) and Diary of a Country Priest (1951). I’ve never seen the latter, though the story seems fairly similar in style. First Reformed was the best of 2018. It’s a story that stuck with me all year long; where I find myself thinking about it over and over again as the grim climate change news continues to pour in and the impact grows more dire and extreme each year. It’s such a massive problem that would require such unfathomable change that people will do as little as they can until it impacts them, and by the time such an event happens to enough people, we will be long past the point of no return. The odds close down every day, and we’re beginning to see the devastation - with hurricanes, forest fires, tornadoes, and temperatures all at record breaking extremes, and still nothing is being done and half the country refuses to acknowledge the problem. It was hearing Paul Schrader mention Bresson’s influence, that I immediately understood the influence, especially after watching L’Argent.
Similar to First Reformed, L’Argent conveys a devastating cynicism. In some of the most beautiful images I can remember seeing all year, the movie is about a delivery driver who unknowingly spends counterfeit money he accepted from some kids; landing himself in prison, derailing his life and pushing him into the grimmest possible outcome.
To describe each scene without going into great detail would be an injustice to how significant each shot is. The colors and actions are so crisp and perfect, with each shot looking as though it was a combination of a precise natural painting and photograph. In the Criterion supplements, critic James Quandt goes through a literal A - Z list to expound on an idea per letter - from Marxist undertones through Nietzsche and its use of diegetic music; not only how it relates to this film, but all of Bresson’s films.* It’s the type of essay that makes you feel inadequate to discuss the movie, as there is so much to unpack that only repeated viewings could possibly provide the confidence to discuss.
All I have for this first viewing is the feeling it left me with. Not since rewatching There Will Be Blood have I so loved each and every image I’ve seen; in which there was an anticipation for what would come next - how it’d be composed, blocked, and assembled. I do not like using cutaway inserts when filming action, though it’s often necessary to find a cheap way around more elaborate setups, and yet somehow Bresson achieves the opposite - as the seemingly endless thread of close ups, showing people grabbing, handling, pushing, and reacting to all that’s going on around them is absolutely stunning to see. One of the first images is that of a pair of dirty red gloved hands, unscrewing a hose from a red fire hydrant. The nozzle head is a dark gray blue, matching the delivery driver’s blue uniform, and as is normal when film achieves its highest artistic ability, words fail to describe why this is an absolutely beautiful and haunting shot. From there are paper notes unfolded, a bowl spilling some coffee, a large ladle sliding across cold concrete and into a wall.
The images are supported with a combination of hyper realistic sound design (in which Bresson punches up certain otherwise banal sound effects, such as clothespins snapping over laundry lines), often with a voice or action carrying. L’Argent functions in opposition to spectacle - arguably even more impressive than some of the longest tracking shots. In one moment, we see a hand enter the frame and grab a man’s jacket, hearing the sounds of bowls, silverware, and a table dropping, only going on to see the aftermath. In another shot, there’s a bowl filled with coffee and a man slaps a woman in the face. All we see is the bowl tip and spill and yet it’s impact is harsh. Only supreme craftsmanship utilizing the magic of cinema could make a bowl that tips some coffee out be forever etched into my mind - like the cup of seltzer water from Taxis Driver or the water cup from Jurassic Park (1993).
Recently I watched Fellini’s Satyricon (1969) and Hitchcock’s Topaz (1969) - two incredibly mediocre films as compared to what their authors accomplished prior. So few filmmakers have been able to continue producing great work in their later years. Tarantino has many times specified that he’s going to stop making films after his tenth. To think that Bresson was able to achieve cinema of the highest order on his last film is an unprecedented feat and I’m left wondering if it has something to do with that hungry yearning to express an idea that led to the accomplishment. The issue most of cinema's greatest filmmakers experience is that by the time they reach their golden years, all they have done to progress the art forward has been replicated and imitated, both by themselves and others.
In the case of L’Argent, what I saw felt like a person at the peak of their career. Bresson somehow was able to make a deeply cynical story beautiful. Then again, most of the greatest works of world art possess the same; conveying emotion that we don’t entirely understand, but we just connect to. Or maybe it’s simply the perfect film for where we all are in March 2019 and we’re going. So little is being done to address our most serious problems, with no attempt to bridge our differences, that it feels though the whole system is on the verge of snapping; exactly as Bresson had anticipated.
*James Quandt somehow made one of the film’s titles sound as good as food by the end of the hour long essay.
BELOW: Only cool scene from the movie; one of Hitch's best shots
Like what you read? Support the site on Patreon
Please report any spelling, grammar, or factual errors or corrections on the contact page
© Jonathan Cvack and Yellow Barrel, 2015 - 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jon Cvack and Yellow Barrel with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.