Monday, July 24, 2017

L'ARGENT - #886


There was an “everything is connected” subgenre in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s that was perhaps kicked off by Richard Linklater’s Slacker, but that really traces roots back to Max Ophuls and La ronde [review]--films where characters are connected by social happenstance (13Conversations About One Thing) or perhaps an object (Robert Altman’s Gun TV series). One chat leads to another, one careless act affects a passerby, a butterfly flaps its wings and a writer looks for meaning.

Linklater is a devotee of Robert Bresson, and it would stand to reason that Bresson’s 1983 crime drama L’argent was an inspiration. Based on a story by Tolstoy, L’argent tells the tale of several lives thrown into upheaval by two selfish teenagers choosing to pass a counterfeit bill at a small camera and photo shop. When the storeowners decide to unload it, along with other fraudulent notes, on a trusting deliveryman, they not only expose their own unscrupulousness, but force the driver into a legal wrangle he can’t get himself out of.


This man, Lucien (Vincent Risterucci), is the closest we get to a main character--or at least he's the one we root for, if only temporarily. His life is the most damaged by the initial crime and the several more it inspires. His plight is transformative. He is the good man forced to be bad. It's a gradual change, one that seems natural, despite of--or perhaps because of--Bresson’s technique. The French director is famous for extracting emotion from performance and approaching his actors as poseable “models.” His cast blandly hits marks, delivers its lines with little intonation, and maintains a steady gaze. To some, it's stiff and amateurish, but once you tune in to Bresson’s wavelength, his narrative theories begin to make sense. You just have to lock them in place.

It's almost like kabuki in its formalism. By staging L’argent with such a rigorous dispassion, we are spared the melodrama, we are spared being swayed by our own feelings, and instead we watch the pieces move, staying in the moment rather than trying to guess the plot twists, reserving judgment until it has all passed, the audience serving as an observant jury. We don't judge Lucien, we don’t put ourselves in his shoes, we instead just watch. In fact, when he does show some real emotion, it's such an affront, Bresson has him bury his head in a pillow. Open weeping is for other movies.


Which isn’t to say we aren't invested. We totally are. The sheer cruelty of humanity underlying every callous turn is undeniable, it's just that we follow the events as we would a true crime story rather than a fiction, as if they already happened and are thus beyond inevitable. We can't help but feel for Lucien, but perhaps it makes us less sympathetic when he makes wrong turns. L’argent does not romanticize his crimes.

Ironic, then, that showing the crimes themselves is the only place where Bresson’s theories fail him. While the mechanics of the violence are evident, the abstraction renders them ineffective and even confusing. Is it that showing the actual blood and gore as evidence would bias us more than the director would like, or is he just squeamish? If we are the jury, we would need to consider the victims--even after some of them are declared unlikable--otherwise the testimony is incomplete. Lucien’s actions already seem outsized, and Bresson’s editing—chopping up the scenes, showing the beginning of the action and an implied outcome (jumping from a raised weapon to blood splatter, etc.) but never the in between, proves only to make them less believable.

Luckily, this does nothing to lessen the tragic poetry of L’argent. Particularly as the truly bad people, unmoored as they are by the appearance of this fake cash, suffer very little consequence. Bresson carves out a world where heeding one’s conscience only leads to mistakes and punishment. The survivors mostly serve themselves, or feign charity for effect. Which, when you really think about it, means the themes of L’argent are perfectly in sync with the storytelling. Remove emotion, stick to what can be known--and done.


This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

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