Wednesday, 29 February 2012

L'ARGENT - Review by Greg Klymkiw - Bresson's adaptation of the great Tolstoy novella, "The Forged Coupon" is a masterpiece. To not see it, to not acknowledge its greatness, to not revisit the work again and again and again is to deny the power of cinema and frankly, to deny cinema altogether. "L'Argent" is screening as part of the TIFF Cinematheque's major retrospective organized and curated by the legendary programmer James Quandt.

L'Argent (1983) dir. Robert Bresson
Starring: Christian Patey, Caroline Lang, Sylvie Van den Elsen, Vincent Risterucci


By Greg Klymkiw

Robert Bresson died in 1999. During his forty years as a director, he made only 15 feature films. On one hand, it's somewhat disgraceful that his uncompromising vision made it so difficult for him to secure financing. On the other, when one looks at filmmakers of equal genius (albeit very different filmmakers), the ease with which they were able to grind out film after film left quite a few stinkers in their canons and as their careers progressed into their august years, the work itself adhered strictly to the law of diminishing returns. For me, Ford and Capra (who, in fairness often took gun-for-hire gigs with studios) are those who fall into this category. There were exceptions to the rule like John Huston, who made his fair share of stinkers, but in his last years generated several terrific pictures and in the case of The Dead, his last film, a bonafide masterpiece.

L'Argent was Bresson's last film and made 15 years before his death. I hate to imagine what those final 15 years were like NOT making a film, but one hopes he took some solace in the fact that this was exactly the sort of final work that every artist dreams of leaving behind. Not only is this picture the ultimate Bresson film - a culmination of his deeply original approach to cinematic storytelling - but is, in fact, a deeply important film; artistically and morally. This is a film that, on its surface seems utterly stripped of redemption for its lead character, for the world and finally, for humanity. This, I believe, IS purely surface. L'Argent may well be one of the great humanist works of the 20th century - up there with the greatest films of Jean Renoir, if not in a stratosphere far above.

While Bresson's work was always secular in its humanism, there was also an adherence to faith - lapsed or otherwise and importantly, never in the sense of religious humanism. L'Argent presents a world where any sense of faith is betrayed and/or quashed and yet, in spite of this (and in spite of the almost cold, calculatingly precise manner in which the tale is rendered), this might well be Bresson's most emotional and affecting film - his most profoundly moving work.

It should probably come as no surprise that L'Argent is based on a literary work by Leo Tolstoy - a writer who practically defined the modern art of narrative (as I'd argue Bresson did with cinema), a great thinker/philosopher (again, not unlike Bresson) and a believer in both faith and a higher power, but ultimately eschewing the corruption and hypocrisy of organized religion (and again, Bresson being cinema's Tolstoy in this regard). Where Bresson and Tolstoy appear to part, at least literally, is that Bresson chose to base his film upon only Part I of Tolstoy's novella "The Forged Coupon" and not touch Part II of the work - the part wherein redemption was sought and found.

For Bresson's great film, this was a brave, brilliant and strangely apt choice.

There is, finally, something mysteriously affecting in Bresson's almost under-a-microscope study of how one immoral action sets off a chain of events, domino-like, of one unethical act after the other until we are faced with the ultimate evil, actions of the most viciously immoral kind - conducted with no remorse, no feeling (not even hate, it seems) and certainly - no redemption.

The tale Bresson spins is relatively faithful to Tolstoy's (though updated to contemporary France). A forged bill is passed on to a hapless soul who is powerless to fight the punishment he receives after unwittingly passing on the fake money. Losing his job and any reasonable prospect of employment to support his wife and child, he takes on the job of a getaway driver during a heist. He is caught, sentenced to prison and loses his child to a fatal illness and his wife who decides to move on and begin a new life. Upon his eventual release from prison, he has nothing. His soul seems drained and his actions become increasingly violent.

Upon committing an utterly heinous and unpardonable sin/crime, he calmly turns himself in - not out of redemption or guilt or compassion, but to further an opportunity to be incarcerated with the person who passed him the bill in the first place - to extract cold, calculated revenge (and by this point, without even the extreme emotion of hatred - revenge becomes almost a base need).

It is here where Bresson offers one of the most astonishing final images and cleaves it off literally with a picture cut to black that is so exquisite, so precise, so emotionally and viscerally powerful, that experiencing it invokes a physical response that is literally breathtaking.

Tolstoy offered us redemption. Bresson denies it to us. Two different approaches to the same material, however, yield similar results. We so desperately cling to the hope that redemption will come to Bresson's central character, that it's OUR HOPE, that IS, finally the redemption. Bresson allows us to seek humanity in ourselves through the inhuman actions of another.

This is a masterpiece.

To not see it, to not acknowledge this, to not revisit this great work again and again and again is to deny cinema and the power of cinema - one that even Tolstoy himself in his final years lamented not having an opportunity to tackle.

Cinema is a great gift.

Bresson, however, was the greatest gift to cinema.

L'Argent is his greatest film.

"L'Argent" is screening as part of the TIFF Cinemtheque's major retrospective organized and curated by the legendary programmer James Quandt. Aptly titled "The Poetry of Precision: The Films of Robert Bresson", this and every other Bresson film is unspooling at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and over a dozen cinemas across North America. The film is screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox Saturday March 17 at 4PM and Sunday March 18 at 4:45PM . Tickets are available HERE. "L'Argent" is also available on DVD.