Home Video Hovel: L’Argent, by David Bax
L’Argent was to be Robert Bresson’s final feature. If you’re worried, for some reason, that he switched up his style for his last hurrah, allow me to assuage your fears. He employs the same (surprisingly deep and emotional) flat affect as always, giving you more time to think about what’s in his impeccably composed frames. L’Argent has a preoccupation with doors, for instance. These are generally thought of as passages but, Bresson reminds us, doors close and sometimes even lock, shutting some of us off from the rest.
Based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy, L’Argent initially follows a counterfeit 500 franc bill as it passes from person to person. But before you can start to wonder if this is just a currency-concerned Au hasard Balthazar, that conceit stops and we instead begin to track the individuals the false note has touched and how their lives play out in the aftermath of that one, fateful afternoon.
With mercenary quickness, the literal buck passing turns into the familiar, figurative sort, with the fallout from the forged bill landing with full force on the working class characters and others who are low on the totem pole. When it comes time for the consequences to be paid, the poor get the short end of the stick while the bourgeois get the benefit of the doubt. What began as a compelling tale of cause and effect, though, soon becomes histrionically diagrammatic. As circumstances drive characters further and further down the moral spectrum, L’Argent comes to resemble Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, more a survey of societal worst case scenarios than an actual story.
Still, the social critique adheres. Those who aren’t financially secure are obviously more likely to be one bad break away from felonious solutions. But as petty fraud gives way to multiple brutal murders over the course of less than 90 minutes, it’s clear that L’Argent works better as a salacious crime movie than as any sort of parable.
The restoration on this Criterion release was done in 2K from a 4K scan of the camera negative. The picture is filmic and textured. The mono French track, from 35MM mag, is clear and detailed. The English subtitle translation is new.
Special features include a press conference from the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, a new video essay by film scholar James Quandt and, in the booklet, an essay by critic Adrian Martin and a 1983 interview with Bresson by critic Michel Ciment.