In his ruthlessly clear-eyed final film, French master Robert Bresson pushed his unique blend of spiritual rumination and formal rigor to a new level of astringency. Transposing a Tolstoy novella to contemporary Paris, L’argent follows a counterfeit bill as it originates as a prop in a schoolboy prank, then circulates like a virus among the corrupt and the virtuous alike before landing with a young truck driver and leading him to incarceration and violence. With brutal economy, Bresson constructs his unforgiving vision of original sin out of starkly perceived details, rooting his characters in a dehumanizing material world that withholds any hope of transcendence.
Although he went on to win Best Director at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, Robert Bresson faced a group of befuddled journalists who struggled to grasp his film L'argent during a testy press conference at Cannes that is included on this Criterion Blu-ray. The press corps were curious about a wide range of things, such as why Bresson always cast non-professionals and why he frequently portrayed youth in his films. Bresson seemed to either answer each question with a contradictory response or gave the opposite reaction to what a member of the press hoped he would give. The discussion turned to the state of film and Bresson was quite adamant that it had not ascended to an art form yet nor should it be considered a synthesis of the arts.
The area in which local critics really struggled with L'argent, I think, is Bresson's very uncommon narrative style. The movie's premise appears deceptively simple but contains deep layers that warrant several viewings. Based on Tolstoy's novella The Forged Coupon, L'argent follows the trail of a counterfeit bill as it's passed on from one character to another. The young student Norbert (Marc Ernest Fourneau) takes a forged 500-franc note to a photographer's shop where it's given to Yvon Targe (Christian Patey), an oil deliveryman, along with two other notes. Yvon doesn't fully realize that it's counterfeit and, when he uses it in a café, he's alleged with circulating the forgeries. The photographer has been supplying his assistant, Lucien (Vincent Risterucci), with hush money and Norbert's mother (Claude Cler) has also been paying to prevent her son from getting arrested. Yvon goes to trial and although acquitted, he loses his job. Desperate to provide for his wife and daughter, Yvon becomes a getaway driver for an ill-fated bank robbery. He's caught and sentenced to three years in prison.
Bresson and his two cinematographers employ few direct close-ups or tracking shots. The camera is mostly static with a medium level framing that sometimes in part crops faces and feet. Bresson tends to focus on a character's mid-section or the back of someone. He goes completely against convention by refusing to show a facial reaction when a confrontation takes place or an accident occurs. Instead, he fixates the lens on one's hands or the object integral to the causal chain of events. The framing is occasionally canted and the editing ellipitcal but the narrative flows like a visual fugue. There isn't a frame of film wasted.
The characters in L'argent are cold and expressionless, demonstrating the corrosive effect money has on the soul. Female characters wail but noise is almost infinitesimal. L'argent is not necessarily a heartless film, however, as I felt for Yvon when he learned of his daughter's affliction. Bresson's rigidity and formalism may be frustrating for viewers but L'argent tells such a mesmerizing tale of greed and corruption that it demands to be seen. It necessities repeat viewings because spectators can become so engrossed in the plot that they miss the beautiful subtleties of Bresson's filmmaking.
Criterion brings L'argent to Blu-ray on this AVC-encoded BD-50. The movie has been restored with a new 4K scan from the camera negative. Criterion has produced a new video essay, included a vintage press conference with Bresson, and a forty-page booklet with an extended essay on the film in the context of Bresson's career by Adrian Martin.
The following text appears on page thirty-eight of the booklet: "L'argent is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. On standard and widescreen televisions, black bars may also be visible on the left and right to maintain the proper screen format. This new 2K restoration was undertaken from the 35 mm original camera negative and scanned at 4K resolution at Éclair Laboratories by MK2, with the participation of Mylène Bresson [the director's widow] and the support of the Centre national du cinéma et de l'image animée."
I own the MK2 French DVD (same transfer as the Artificial Eye disc in the UK) and the Criterion shows a cleaner image with a darker tone. The Criterion has a grain structure that is judicioulsy balanced and doesn't occlude any details in the frame. Contrast is well-pronounced without any brightness levels boosted. There are a few film artifacts but this 4K scan surpasses the standard-defintion releases.
Criterion also delineates a few details about L'argent's audio restoration. "The monaural soundtrack was transferred from the 35 mm original magnetic tracks and restored by L. E. Diapason." Criterion renders the French mono as an LPCM 1.0 track. The soundtrack was post-synchronized and sounds flat but authentic to the original recording. Dialogue is relatively clear and comes across cleanly on the center speaker. Bresson has specific sound effects that he amplified and these are distincitively louder. There was no original music score written for the film.
Criterion has supplied optional English subtitles for the main feature.
Press conference from the 1983 Cannes Film Festival (upscaled to HD, 30:27). Although this press conference has cast members present with the director, the Q&A is dominated by Robert Bresson as he fields questions from the press corps. While it includes some translated English, the presser is almost entirely in French and comes with English subtitles.
“L’argent,” A to Z, a new video essay by film scholar James Quandt (HD, 50:48). This illustrated essay has Bresson expert James Quandt narrating an essay (in English) about L'argent's themes, recurring visual motifs, the cinematic and painting influences on Bresson's career, et al. This piece incorporates clips from the film and many stills from other movies directed by Bresson. It's made up of twenty-six segments. A caveat for those who haven't seen Bresson's other works and want to is that Quandt drops some spoilers from them so you'll want to skip ahead a bit.
Trailer (upscaled to HD, :27). A quick teaser trailer of L'argent showing a brief segment from the film.
Booklet. A forty-page booklet containing an essay on Bresson and L'Argent by film scholar Adrian Martin and a 1983 interview with Bresson conducted by Michel Ciment. Excerpts from the interview were initially published in the October '83 issue of American Film but this includes a new translation by Nicholas Elliot especially prepared for this release.
L'argent is visual storytelling par excellence and perhaps the clearest distallation of Bresson's narrative style. This final film by the French auteur is in this reviewer's all-time top-ten list. If you were one of the lucky few to own the long out-of-print New Yorker DVD, hang on to it as Criterion did not license Kent Jones's audio commentary or the two interviews with Bresson. Criterion adds an excellent video essay by James Quandt that stands in for a commentary and the contentious press conference with Bresson along with his cast at Cannes. Criterion's 4K scan looks film-like and there are no issues with the soundtrack. Not the definitive package for extras but the best that L'argent has looked and sounded.