L’Argent [subtitled]


I had, prior to L’Argent, never seen a movie by celebrated French director Robert Bresson. Now having seen one, I can’t say I’m all that eager to see another.

I didn’t hate the movie certainly, but it’s of an artsy style that mostly doesn’t connect with me.

This film is said to be based on Tolstoy’s short story The Forged Coupon. I haven’t read that story, but I have read a lot of Tolstoy, and this movie seems a million miles away from Tolstoy. As far as some of the themes it deals with, I suppose it might overlap with Tolstoy (and an enormous number of other serious writers), but stylistically I see zero Tolstoy here.

If I had to compare the minimalist, portentous, borderline surreal, at times incomprehensible style of this movie to any writer, it would be Camus. This film put me in mind of The Stranger, a work I’ve read twice and still have only a slight grasp of.

Counterfeit money is known to be floating around Paris, so people are on the lookout for it. Some snooty teenagers try to pass some counterfeit bills, getting some accepted at a photography shop. When the proprietor realizes what’s happened, he and his staff pass them on to a repairman, who eventually is the one to get caught by the police with the bills. He tells the police where he got the bills, but the people from the shop deny having ever even seen him before. (Wouldn’t there be some work order or something showing he did work on their building?)

The realization that he has been used sets him on a downward spiral into more serious crimes and a prolonged period of incarceration during which his wife leaves him.

Indeed, one of the messages of the film seems to be that wrongdoing is contagious in a sense, that the more you are a victim of, or collaborator with, or witness of wrongdoing, the more natural it is for your darker side to come to the surface and join in.

The people who are at least reasonably well off are able to buy their way out of trouble or have things overlooked when they get caught. Someone like the repairman is not so lucky.

Certainly there’s the potential for this to be an interesting and thought-provoking story, but the style prevents me from responding to it at a very deep level.

There’s minimal dialogue. There are lots of meaningful glances and people looking like all that they do and say is more important as a symbol of something else than as something to be taken literally as part of a coherent story.

The unconventional camerawork is mildly interesting as a novelty, but adds little to the movie other than obscurity. Routinely characters are shot so you can only see them from the neck down, or only see their legs and feet, or only see their arms and hands. The camera is generally stationary, and shots often start with no one in the frame, and then the characters walk into or through the frame.

It gives the film a slower, more mysterious, at times eerie feel. But for me at least, that’s not an improvement over just telling the story by showing regular people shot in regular ways saying the sorts of things that real people in these situations would say. But it’s, intentionally, simply not that kind of movie.

The final third of L’Argent especially is implausible, if taken in any kind of a literal way. I’m sure there are non-literal interpretations that make some sense of it—the repairman represents Death coming for people, or he represents some force of evil that people have created through their petty wrongdoing and now must be appeased by the sacrifice of innocents, or something—but I’ll leave that to the more highbrow viewers to figure out.

Some interesting issues, handled in a mostly slow and obscure way. Just not my kind of movie.

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