Monday, 23 July 2018

Diamond Bullet: Robert Bresson's L'ARGENT


It is interesting to consider what viewers today might take away from Robert Bresson's final film, L'argent (1983). Many will no doubt be fascinated by the period details laden throughout this crystal-clear, perfectly preserved portrait of Paris in the summer and fall of 1982: the bulky, primitive cash registers, ATMs, and medical equipment, the boxy cars and trucks that ceaselessly flow past the many windows seen throughout the film, all of it belonging to a faint, analog echo of our own world. Others might be intrigued by the approach Bresson took to Leo Tolstoy's source novella The Forged Coupon (completed in 1904, but not published until 1911, one year after Tolstoy's death), from which he adapted only the first half of the story, tinkered with the order and focal points of the remaining story elements, and relocated the action from Tolstoy's early-20th-century Russia to the contemporary France in which he lived, worked, and, with the exception of Lancelot du Lac (1974), situated all of his later color films, each one striking a slightly different chord with the mostly Parisian locations through which his characters followed their fates. Yet what will likely make the strongest impression upon viewers is the extraordinary clarity and directness through which L'argent's events are delivered, appearing as a series of crisp, sleek sequences that take us through the eighty-four-minute run time in what feels like barely any time at all. This spellbinding effect is the direct result of not just the incredible focus and attention Bresson, who was nearly 81 when shooting commenced, brought to the challenge of making L'argent, but also the singular path he walked throughout his career in which he sought to distance himself and his craft as far as possible from the vulgar, manipulative sensationalism of commercial cinema. He succeeded by way of his overriding preference to use inexperienced "models," as opposed to professionally trained or experienced actors, whose flattened modes of expression, obtained after many takes, signified Bresson's attempts to draw himself and his audience closer to their undiluted spiritual essences, and through his devotion to the effects of image, sound - which Bresson was especially fascinated with, exploring its unique expressive capabilities in every film - and the careful honing and balancing of the two to create a cinematic representation of the world quite unlike any other, sharp-edged and charged with life and sensuality.

"Bresson's films cast a spell upon their viewers," writes Adrian Martin. "They demand and induce a kind of hyper-attentiveness: spectators tend to remember very precise, concrete details from them, like the sound of a babbling brook or the sight of a closing door. Their pace and focus are mesmerizing." I can personally attest to the hyper-attentive effects that Bresson's cinema can bring about: after I have seen one of his films, it's not unusual for me to become noticeably (to me, at least) more careful with everything I do with my hands, more aware of the movements and minute acts that are involved in every task I engage them in, no doubt a direct result of the many, many tight, isolated shots of hands performing various deeds that abound throughout his work. And I too have retained my own personal inventory of specific details that have lodged themselves in my brain like so many pieces of iridescent shrapnel. To list a few examples from L'argent: the ding! from a telephone as its receiver is quickly snatched up from its cradle; the surprisingly pleasing shades of blue found in a succession of plastic bins, the walls of a hospital room, the many uniforms that file through the film; the dragging of a metal cup back and forth across the stone floor of a prison cell. By instilling this sense of heightened awareness as only they can, Bresson's films inspire a fresh and entirely unique appreciation for the tactile properties of the world through which I live and work, helping me better recognize and savor the oft-overlooked sublimity of the soft reflection of daylight off worn wooden surfaces, the sound of my feet on the pavement as I walk to work, the satisfying click of the metal cap of my water bottle every time I put it back in place. Even the simple acts of washing dishes, opening and lifting things, and writing these very words are made more involving and exciting thanks to Bresson's invigorating depictions of such deeds in his films.

In an enlightening interview with Colin Burnett regarding the time he spent on the set of L'argent as an assistant to Bresson and his crew, Jonathan Hourigan describes the "experimental" aspects of Bresson's approach to directing, pursued in an ongoing quests for "his models' 'states of soul'...and his desire constantly to challenge, simplify, and deepen his approach to filmmaking." This idea of Bresson as an experimenter at heart, continually trying out new things and venturing into untested territory in his work provides an interesting contrast to the more widely-held ideas and perceptions surrounding his films involving their superb technical quality, formal control, and rigorous adherence to his particular methods and principles. In other words, it seems Bresson wasn't quite, or entirely, as rigid and rule-bound as the multiple takes, precise demands upon his models, and work devoted to his films' elaborate editing and sound design have implied with such overwhelming influence among his admirers. In addition to the fresh, exciting breakthroughs he reached in the shooting phases of his works, a number of sequences in late Bresson stand out for their unabashed strangeness, like isolated experiments in clarity somehow, paradoxically, extracted from a point of near-sheer disorientation, like the jousting sequence in Lancelot du Lac composed mostly of close-ups of horses' hooves and flags being raised and lowered, or the similarly fragmented, vaguely sinister bus sequence in The Devil, Probably (1977). "Bresson was a noted stylist and minimalist," Hourigan explains. "But making a film, whether writing, shooting, or editing, he was also committed to pursuing his intuitions spontaneously. Perhaps, like all great, mature artists, he also sought simplicity, directness, and expressive depth."

Christian Patey and Caroline Lang in L'argent

In the same interview, Hourigan discusses at length Bresson's preference to describe the noticeably bleaker tone of his later films as "lucid" rather than "pessimistic," with lucidity being a key goal of his carefully assembled, highly accomplished experiments. Much like Akira Kurosawa's own choice to portray the tragic, bloody events of his late masterpiece Ran (1985) from a firmly upheld God's-eye point of view that largely avoided close-ups in favor of a more distant vantage point, one can likewise observe Bresson consciously pulling back from the intimate, involving voice-over narrations of Diary of a Country Priest (1951), A Man Escaped (1956), and Pickpocket (1959) to adopt a similarly withdrawn, more objective perspective dedicated to a cinematic world devoid of non-diegetic music - all the better to accommodate Bresson's sonic tapestry of silences, ambient sounds, and vivid, strategically arranged sound effects - in which surfaces, sensations, and actions have taken full priority over any interior, psychologically revealing elements. In this respect, L'argent can very much be considered a successful attempt at the clean-cut lucidity Bresson strove to accomplish, so gut-wrenchingly clear, clean, direct, and efficient is his depiction of the calamitous chain of events put into motion by the passing off of a forged 500-franc note to Yvon (Christian Patey), a husband, father, and truck driver who suffers the harshest consequences from the deceptive deed.

Early on, the basic features of Yvon's life are shown to us by way of just a few details: his job pumping and receiving payment for oil at the camera shop where the counterfeit note - along with two others that the devious business owner (Didier Baussy) seeks to rid himself of - falls into his hands; a few brief glimpses of Yvon's wife Elise (Caroline Lang) and young daughter Yvette (Jeanne Aptekman), both of whom also suffer from Yvon's misfortunes; a messy breakfast table representing the cozy, unkempt domesticity that will soon vanish from Yvon's life. Moving at a swift pace that doesn't waste a single second or frame, L'argent proceeds to reveal, step by step, the diabolical workings of greed and self-interest - all driven, one way or another, by the malevolent force that gives the film its bluntly apt title, money - that will strip Yvon of all he holds dear, including his own humanity. We witness the decisive acts - the lies told by the schoolboys from whom the false bill originates and the shop staff who deny any memory of Yvon or the notes, the moment of aggression triggered when Yvon innocently attempts to use the bills in a restaurant on his lunch break - that land Yvon in trouble with the law for the first time and lose him his job. We see him, desperate to earn some money, get pulled into a botched bank robbery and car chase (both shot and edited in a highly elliptical, idiosyncratic manner), which earns him a prison sentence of three years. Helpless in our seats, we see the things that were once at the center of Yvon's world fall away from him like leaves from a dying tree. Two devastating letters from Elise find their way to Yvon in prison, harshly outlining his losses in neat blue writing, followed soon after by a shot of a handful of blue pills carefully gathered and hidden in his cell for the right moment. But life somehow keeps pulling Yvon along, and steadily, before our eyes and between Bresson's cuts, this poor man changes, becoming something else - something cold and hollow.

Then, before we know it, he is released, silently seen off at the prison gates by no fewer than three guards, bound for a fate far more mysterious and serene than those that befall the assorted crooks, evaders, and would-be avengers tied up in this web of deceit and misfortune. The beginning of L'argent's disturbing, exquisite final passage is marked first by a stream of red - the blood Yvon washes from his hands after having killed the owners of a hotel - followed by a veritable explosion of green, a lush shock of wild, overgrown nature that has mercifully replaced the hard, icy surfaces of glass, metal, and stone that dominated the earlier urban and prison portions of the film. Here, in this pastoral setting somewhere in the French countryside, we meet the gray-haired woman (Sylvie van den Elsen) whom Yvon follows home from town, stopping at the fairy tale bridge just before her house as if kept back by some protective spell. Standing at her door, an attentive German shepherd by her side, she sees him, this lone man with his bags, furrowed brow, and slightly tousled dark hair who looks like a stray dog. Perhaps recognizing a kindred spirit, there in that calm, wind-swept place at what feels like the edge of the world, she takes him in. We see how she has been conditioned to a life of servitude to her family, quietly and diligently seeing to her work with nary a moment's rest - or a word of gratitude in return. We meet her loathsome father (Michel Briguet), who whiles away his time around the house with drinking and idleness. Yvon tells the gray-haired woman of his crimes; she doesn't flinch or back away or call the police. And as she spends more time with him, Bresson draws us deeper into the everyday sublimity of this oddly timeless setting through, as always, rich, sensory details: those remarkably green bursts of growth; a heap of potatoes uprooted out of their beds of soil by the woman's pitchfork, her feet clad in big black clogs; the splash of black coffee that spills over her hands when her father slaps her. Even when the father later knocks over a glass of wine, there is something oddly pleasurable about the tinkling of the glass and the sight and sound of the woman's hands cleaning up the mess with a brush, its bristles scraping against the wet wooden floor. Later, when Yvon keeps her company as she washes and hangs up the laundry, we are transfixed by everything around them: the trickling river, the dense wood surface against which she scrubs the fabric, the squeaking of her wheelbarrow and clicking of the clothespins, the nuts Yvon picks from low-hanging tree branches and shares with the woman as he hands her the fine white garments.

Christian Patey and Sylvie van den Elsen in L'argent

This calmly staggering passage, whose final moments commence with Yvon's nighttime visit to the house with a lantern in one hand and an ax in the other - much like Willard rising from the muck to kill Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979), ready to play his part as cold-blooded murderer and deliverer of mercy - drives home the revelatory force of Bresson's vision, which has the same impact on me as the diamond bullet Kurtz speaks of in awed tones, imparting a new way of seeing and processing the world and the experiences of pain, endurance, and blessed relief that lie along the same even plane. Perhaps no one else has articulated this better than Kent Jones, who, in his essay, "A Stranger's Posture: Notes on Bresson's Late Films" (found in James Quandt's invaluable volume Robert Bresson (Revised)), he describes L'argent as "perhaps the only film ever made that allows the horrors of mankind and the beauty of the world that contains it to coexist without irony or bitterness."

One can easily see in L'argent the spiritual origins for later razor-sharp portraits of life in the contemporary world from such devotees of Bresson's work as Michael Haneke and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. However, I see a more interesting correlation between Bresson and everyone's favorite Finnish master of the tragicomic, Aki Kaurismäki, who has expressed his admiration for Bresson and L'argent not only in interviews and tributes in his films (Sylvie van den Elsen makes a cameo appearance in La vie de bohème (1992) while Guy Peellaert's dramatic poster for L'argent can be spotted in the movie theater in Drifting Clouds (1996)), but also by way of the deadpan performances he draws from his actors; his superb command of economy and pace; the miracles he and cinematographer Timo Salminen achieve with light and color (especially blue); his persistent fascination with filming hands, money, labor, hardship, and dogs; and his characters' tendencies to wind up in bars, courtrooms, and prisons, all of which having surpassed the status of mere homage to become natural, integral elements of Kaurismäki's distinctive cinematic world. As it so happens, 1983, a year not at all lacking in eye-opening, boundary-pushing cinema (El Sur, Koyaanisqatsi, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Nostalghia, Passion, Return of the Jedi, Sans soleil), marks the release of both L'argent and Kaurismäki's very first feature film, a fittingly off-beat take on Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (which also served as the basis for Bresson's Pickpocket). It is as if Kaurismäki's cinema chronologically and spiritually picked up where Bresson's left off and kept on going, continuing to tell stories about working class characters, the trials and tribulations they face in a merciless capitalist society, and the elusiveness of redemption, security, and contentment in that hostile world. However, while Bresson's late experiments in lucidity left his characters in some very dark places, Kaurismäki always seems to find, to varying degrees, room for music, drink, camaraderie, and decency - those glimmers of hope and humor that keep his characters going. Lights in the dusk, to borrow the title of one of his most L'argent-like films. Both Bresson and Kaurismäki patiently perfected their skills while applying them to the increasingly disturbing conditions facing the people living in the world around them, with them, on the ground floor of modern life, their searches leading them to lost youth, ecological devastation, the working class, outsiders and wanderers - and now, given crucial and careful attention in Kaurismäki's most recent two films, Le Havre (2011) and The Other Side of Hope (2017), the global immigrant population now threatened around the world. A selfless kind of humanism drives these films, reinforced and enhanced by a constant effort towards a purity of style, always for the cause of the work, what it is addressing, and the directness of its impact, be it sobering, comical, or both, upon the viewer. A humanistic clarity, brought to its hardest shine and softest glow, as sure and pure as light itself.