Sick of the summer stupidity yet? Tired of tedious comic book movies aimed squarely at the attention deficit afflicted youth market quadrant? Do you yearn for a film, as opposed to a movie, which doesn’t have a number in the title or ten minutes of end title crawl listing enough CGI rendering agents to populate a virtual village? Then come with me gentle reader as we plunge into the fathomless deep waters of art-house pretension, as a palette cleanser to all the blockbuster bombast I can’t imagine a more diametrically opposite strain of cinematic communication than the austere alchemy of Robert Bresson, one of the most impassively displaced filmmakers to ever freeze the silver screen. Bresson is perhaps best known for his two films A Man Escaped and Pickpocket whose sparsely arranged, emotionally neutered dimensions often find themselves as prime examples of economic storytelling on a film art syllabus, as the ultimate practitioner of how information can be imparted to an audience with the absolute molecular minimum of information or inference. His films are almost wilfully obtuse and alienating, all emotion and empathy is quite deliberately parsed away by techniques I will get into shortly, but for context let me explain that we’ll be looking at L’Argent which was his final film from 1983, his 13th feature in a forty-year career which incidentally mirrors Kubrick’s final tally – there are many connections between the two. This rare screening as part of the Monday night film programme of education known as Passport To Cinema is one of the central strands of BFI support of London’s film students, screening a broad spectrum of material across genre and country, era and style, presumably to give them as wide an appreciation of the form to draw upon for their pieces and dissertations. As my fellow audience members shuffled out of NFT2 after this brisk 80 minute screening the overall mood was of quiet shell-shock, as this rather draining piece is quite a demanding watch.
The plot, if you can honestly call it that is based on Tolstoy’s short story The Forged Coupon, updating the social and cultural environment from 19th century tsarist Russia to modern nation-state European capitalism. A young, unnamed man receives his allowance from his father, and requests funds from his mother when he explains he has a debt at school to fulfil – both parents dismiss his entreaty to exceed his fiscal allocation. In exchange for a forged 500 franc note the man pawns his watch, which he then exchanges in a Parisian retail shop for a modest picture frame. Once the subterfuge is discover the shop owner scolds the retail assistant, and instructs her to pass on the note to the next appropriate customer, which just happens to be the doomed Yvon, a blue-collar worker with a young wife and child. Retiring for lunch Yvon tries to pay a restaurant tab with the unknown to him forged note, but a eagle-eyed waiter spots the counterfeit and calls the gendarmes. Yvon is arrested, but avoids a custodial sentence due to his previous good character; nevertheless his loses his job. Desperate and facing destitution with mouths to feed he makes a fateful decision and acts as the get-away car driver for a friend’s bank robbery. The robbery is a failure and Yvon captured and sentenced to three years, due to his previous interaction with the authorities. During his incarceration his daughter dies and his wife writes to him that she is leaving him to start a new life. Then things start to get worse……
If that summary of the plot sounds mechanistic and reduced to the facts then that’s my intent, as this is exactly how the plot mechanics of this deeply pessimistic film unravel, with the elegant perfection of a swiss watch’s relentless movements it charts with an intergalactic weight of dispassion just how one quirk of fate can obliterate a life. A lot of critics and commentators find Bresson an obstinate, implacable cliff face to navigate, his utter disregard to trade in emotion or even a social or political credo can be deeply divisive in that all elusive search for meaning amongst form, but I love this style of filmmaking where the various elements are manipulated in perfect concert to build a deeply affecting, distressing and yes I’ll go there depressing diatribe at modern dianetics, where the systems and processes of civilisation have come to overwhelm their originators, truly the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Bresson always utilised non-professional actors – the sobriquet of ‘acting’ being one he abhorred – whom he termed as his ‘models’, manipulating them like some perfectionist puppet master to be the marionettes of his frigid passion-plays, divorced of emotion, bereft of sentiment. His collaborators were instructed to repeat the sparse dialogue, twenty, thirty, even forty times until every molecule of emotion had been obliterated from the line reading, its no wonder that the vast majority of his models never went to appear in other films, such was the trauma of their experience. The narrative has the economy of a 21st century high-end gadget instruction manual, developments and points are illustrated with the bare lip service of sequential convention, for example in L’Argent a double murder, surely an enormously dramatic and potentially powerful sequence is parsed down to one shot, of a figure washing his hands in the sink as the water runs red. A breathless, nail-biting jailbreak is signalled with a light curling under a cell door, and the distant sounds of movement and friction. This rejection of the normative functions of shot reverse shot & continuity editing, the wholesale ignorance of character depth or development through dialogue and performance push Bresson’s cinema into densely metaphoric realms, the absence of those grips on which to purchase a translation of the film cause the emphasis to alight from the normative to the transformative, as we begin to coalesce what Bresson is actually concerned with – this is the world as it stands parsed back to reveal its true functions and dimensions, and it is inhuman and nubilously ugly.
We were warned beforehand that the print was somewhat distressed but it wasn’t as bad as I anticipated, as usual around the regular reel changes the image could jump and become misaligned to the axis but this wasn’t too jarring, and the films cavernous lack of a soundtrack wasn’t interfered with by any hissing or scratchy glitched transitions, usually it’s the interruption of the soundtrack or clipping the dialogue that can throw you out of the picture with these retrospective screenings, but Bresson’s sparse aesthetics are immune even to the inevitable decay of photo-chemical film stock it seems. When I first saw the film on BBC2 back in those crazy days when the Beeb used to transmit art-house fare I remember being somewhat mystified at the concrete tone and ruthless frugality of the film, this was probably one of my first exposures to such relentless arrangements of form and structure, and then the final sequence arrived and I experienced a palpable rush of blood to the celluloid head with this extraordinary arrangement, like Roy Batty’s tear swept speech or Marlon’s mumbling ’the horror’ this has been indelibly etched on my memory;
Pure, unadulterated existential terror, no lurid sweeping gaze at oozing entrails or the glassy-eyed visages of the recently expired, no weapons lunging into fractured flesh or crescending screams cut short, just a calm reportage of fragments of the event, as Yvon executes his family without any rhyme or reason, other than for the cold, detached and unstoppable march of acquisition and commerce. Butchered for their money the sequence appropriates the ruthless rhythms of capitalism, the howl and turn of the turbine, the eternal crawl of the production line, the mechanical cosmetics of that illusion which allegedly makes the world go round, dwarfing any alternate tenet of a shared humanism or spiritual succor. I remember audibly gasping at the cut to the bodies clustered at the top of the stairs, that sound all the more amplified as barring one brief sequence of Bach which a character plays on a piano L’Argent has no non-diagetic music whatsoever, it plays to the rhythms of real life with distant hums and echoes of activity, as the automatons walk through the motions of Bresson’s reformation fresco’s.
Throughout the film compositions are framed around entrances and exits, doorways and alleyways, cells and shops, in broad cinematic language these structures are a potent signifier of transition, of development and movement as characters egress from one scene to another through the cinematic space, driving the narrative and plot forward through a sequential process of physical displacement. Bresson perverts these conventions with a perturbing precision, through unconventional pacing a curious effect happens as the camera frequently holds the shot and lingers with a strange curiosity on these points of entry and exit long after the ‘model’ has departed the frame. It’s difficult to grasp what purpose Bresson as driving at with this glitched chronology but I will say it incrementally builds an intangible, formless anxiety which is really quite strange to behold, why are we looking at this? Why is he cultivating this vandalised canter? When absorbed in conjunction with the command of the other cinematic tools – the void of diagetic music cues, the obliteration of character and empathy – the physical space has become prime real estate, emotional or humanist discourse reduced to the simple and unimpeachable act of the transaction, the exchange, the barter. Cinema, or more specifically Film is fundamentally an industrial process, chemical solutions reacting to light, whirring gears and peering lenses, time and space sculpted and frozen in time, and Bresson’s figurines moving through that manufactured and constructed space at a formal level bridge half constructed thoughts of how the world is, how our society functions at its more abstract definitions, with an inhuman symmetry to the enlightenment virtues of scientific rigour and progress, of rational reasoning – and crucially what has been lost.
That’s not to say that the film is working any overt political or social manifesto, what makes this scale the highest pantheon of art-cinema is its operating above such tangible concerns, as the Communists embraced cinema as propaganda through the building blocks of montage, or the Americans seduced the masses through form as commerce, Bresson espouses his strict Catholicism through his clandestine formalism, with a hint of redemption and a paradise beyond the veil of tangible earthly temptations. Some critics have sensed a transcendence at the film’s climax which you can see here, I can’t say I see it myself as Yvon’s confession merely completes the circle to the inferno which was set in motion with that initial plea for commerce, as the film unceremoniously guillotines to black with no credits, a genius stroke which crowns a severe forty-year career. It’s the cutting from abstract forms and shapes to another shared symbol of our experience – from feet and hands, from tools and instruments – these functions severed from the body, isolated as mere corollaries as cause and effect supplant faith and charity. None of the ‘models’ obtains a single close-up as the machinery of civilisation is favoured by the implacable camera, the blood greasing the yield, as money, documents, tills, contracts and various media are presented with a solemnity evocative of a 15th century ascension triptych, our new figures of worship and power replacing the divine with the decimal. It may feel at times like being lectured by a particularly stern Marxist theologian and it’s obvious that Bresson is a progenitor of more recent world cinema figures such as Haneke or Bela Tarr, they share an absolute steeled command of cinematic language, a devoted sparseness of performance, an almost insulting disregard for the conventions of audience sympathy and comfort. For me it’s within these eyries that true masterpieces are formed, and that marriage of rigid formalism and technique elevates material to the rapturous, with a total disinterest in the social conditioning that can drive a man to ruin and barbarism through one malfunction of the capitalist machine. L’Argent is nothing less than a macro level lecture on the disease of modern life, a sermon for the sacred over the secular, so if all cinema is alienation, a rejection of reality in two-dimensional space then Bresson is its most sanctified curate, the Archdiocese of apostasy;
*For you real completests I’ve just found this, his 1971 film which has never been released on VHS or DVD due to complex right issues, a film I’m sure will fill a long Bank Holiday weekend with mirth and joy? Yes, yes I am kidding – I’ve bookmarked that for later. So I’m off down to the South Coast myself for a well-earned break, consequently things should get a little quiet around here until next week, in the meantime doesn’t this sound particularly promising?