L’argent: Style Without Entertainment

Stylistically there seems no filmmaker so simultaneously simple and complex as Robert Bresson. There is something to be said for intellectually stimulating films of his nature that do not pander to any kind of audience, but rather presents its ideas in a semi-objective way in order that viewers can approach the film thoughtfully, as almost a piece of philosophy or literature.  

L’argent, being a film about the problem with capitalist culture, might be found to be hypocritical if it indulged in the marketable emotional manipulation that other movies proudly use. Bresson uses his style to say that money is the root of evil, and thus entertainment is discarded and avoided in order to reject the capitalist concepts of emotional satisfaction and popcorn nonsense. The film showcases the direct correlation between a child’s minor crime and the final axe murder of an entire family that takes place at the end of the movie. Some significance could come from the fact Yvonne is arrested in the final scene while in a restaurant, where at the beginning of the film he was originally accused of forgery. Back then he was appalled at the accusation, but here he turns himself in as his transformation is completed. He’s gone from innocent victim to guilty killer. This is the thesis of the film; money corrupts absolutely, not only those pursuing it, but everyone around its pursuit. Through the distinct acting of his models, the cinematic language of the film, and the strong editing choices that don’t cut much of the fluff, Bresson gives us this ideology. 

Of course, to say Bresson gives us anything is laughable. The film takes very great care to make sure that it doesn’t “give” the audience any commercially likeable quality of its own to grasp. Entertainment value is not simply something Bresson has no interest in exploring, but rather is intentionally avoided in the movie as if it were an indulgent sin. Bresson reinforces this intentionality in his book, Notes on the Cinematograph. There he says, “It is useless and silly to work specially for a public. I cannot try what I am making, at the moment of making it, except on myself. Besides, all that matters is to make well”. Bresson’s writing seems to be an intentional lack of care of whether his films have universal appeal or not, but rather a concentration on the craft of his filmmaking. 

 His film L’argent is an oddity in its lack of strong acting choices, except in the choice not to have them at all. Oftentimes when one considers a filmmaker’s style, they think of the director’s choices in cinematography, blocking, production design, and subject matter. While some of those will be touched upon here, it is worth highlighting what I feel directors are less known for, even though one might consider it their primary function: directing actors. While the oddly flat performances in a Wes Anderson film or exaggerated expressions in a Terry Gilliam movie might give us a pause, for the most part we attribute these choices to the actors rather than the directors. It is Bill Murray delivering to us these dry Anderson lines, and Depp who makes the radical character decisions in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Bresson strips us of that option in L’argent by simply giving us non-actors to watch and having them all move in almost exactly the same way as one another. Gone are any distinguishable mannerisms from one character to the next in the tradition with which silent film stars such as Charlie Chaplin revolutionized the screen. Instead, our actors do what they must, say their lines, and continue from scene to scene. Even the “emotional” actions, such as when Yvonne bangs on the door to his cell, or when a child cries as his family is axed down towards the end of the film, are done with the robotic kind of precision that brings to mind The Terminator. The audience is not to empathize, nor live in the moment, but instead to see it. This is a reoccurring theme in this analysis. Note that these are Bresson’s choices, not the actors’, as he clearly states in his book Notes on the Cinematograph “Do not try, and do not wish, to draw tears from the public with the tears of your models, but with this image rather than that one, this sound rather than that one, exactly in their place.” In his direction of actors, which he refers to as models, the filmmaker cares not for any sort of immersion or successful illusion of emotion, but rather using his tools of cinema (all of which he classifies as simply “cinematography”) to illustrate his themes without feeling. 

By stripping emotion from the actor’s expressions and body language, Bresson makes his point feel more like an intellectual argument without a bias. Rather than trying to get you to sympathize with Yvon as a sad man down on his luck, he has the actor portraying the character act rather stoically throughout the film. It would be much easier to dismiss this rant against capitalism as sentimental hogwash if the film had an emotional core. (It is the same technique an essay writer might employ by using large very objective seeming words in order to get his point across; it makes him seem smarter.) Even the grey haired woman at the end of the film, who may be the most sentimental character, has no expression after getting slapped, nor when she is about to be murdered. The film cuts away from both of these moments. 

This brings us to Bresson’s cinematography. The most exciting and emotional parts of L’argent are not even presented objectively, but as if trying to remove their fun. Principally, an apparent rule of L’argent’s cinematography is that if a story beat is going to be engaging on an emotional level, it must be shot in the least exciting way possible. The largest set piece in the film is when Yvonne tries to escape the police in the getaway car. The chase itself is shown from only two angles: the two shots that briefly see the police cars in the side view mirror, and the three downward close ups of Yvonne’s foot on the accelerator. Note here that the sounds of police sirens, while in real life a constant once they have started, don’t seem to interrupt the accelerator close-ups, except as a short transition. Bresson is not only going for a sense of objectivity, but instead transcendence above inciting emotional reactions. If the sirens were more constant, the scene might feel more thrilling, but by separating the accelerator’s hum from the blare of the cop cars the filmmaker stifles the audience’s emotional reactions. A similar thing occurs during the final murder scene of the film, where the bloody gore of Yvonne’s axe swing is not shown directly. Instead, we see a medium shot of blood splattering against the wall. The audience is left to ponder the death on an intellectual level. This technique for the murder makes it feel almost commonplace, or at least not as shocking, to nail home the point that this isn’t some fantastical version of reality but a reality Bresson wants us to consider as not to different from our own. This isn’t Alfred Hitchcock’s famous shower scene in Psycho, which uses quick cuts, large performances, extreme music, and indirect cinematography to leave the killing to the audience’s imagination in order to incite terror. Nothing in L’argent is meant to be left to the imagination in that way. Bresson avoids that kind of emotional manipulation, as he says again in Notes on the Cinematograph, “Avoid paroxysms (anger, terror, etc.) which one is obliged to simulate, and in which everybody is alike.” He instead prefers to present these shots from a thoughtful rather than emotional perspective.  

Finally, the unconventional editing of L’argent is the final piece that makes the film truly stand out. In Walter Murch’s book on editing, In the Blink of An Eye, he says something very contrary to the principles around which Bresson has structured his film. “How do you want the audience to feel? If they are feeling what you want them to feel all the way through the film, you’ve done about as much as you can ever do. What they finally remember is not the editing, not the camerawork, not the performances, not even the story—it’s how they felt”. Murch goes on to write about his six priorities concerning when to keep in or cut out a shot. Atop that list is emotional resonance, followed by story. This is completely counter to what Bresson stands for. In L’argent, you will find a plethora of uncut shots of characters arriving at and exiting certain places. Without any emotional or story based need, we see Yvon exit the photograph shop in 32-second long shot, his reentrance with a police officer in a 20-second long shot, a 22-second sequence of three shots only existing to track the shopkeeper’s journey to the school, there is a tedious 78-second shot in which a prison bus drops off its load of prisoners, a 26 second shot of Yvonn and other prisoners leaving to the visitors center, followed by two more drawn out shots, 39 seconds of Yvonn and prisoners entering the mess hall for lunch, and so many more. These shots do not set a mood for the scene, nor give the mindset of the characters, nor give any plot information other than the character went from one place to another. Their length is unnecessary, and by Murch’s standards they should be cut. However, by placing these shots in the scene, Bresson gives the audience ruminating time, similar to the extensive docking sequences in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. We are invited to think rather than let the film think for us, while the characters take their place as if on a stage in the next scene.  

Bresson commands in his book, “You shall call a fine film the one that makes you think highly of cinematography”. By this definition, L’argent is indeed a fine film, for it does not concern itself with that immersive experience of entertainment that many other films pursue. Instead, it calls attention to its acting, cinematography, and editing, so that the audience may speculate on the film’s text rather than be pulled into its narrative.  

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