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Visible God in Robert Bresson's "L'Argent"

Protagonists in French filmmaker Robert Bresson’s films are often doomed to a tragic fate. In Pickpocket (1959), The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), Lancelot of the Lake (1974), and The Devil Probably (1977), the main characters either die or end up in jail. Submitted to some form of superior authority, they fail to escape their destinies. In Pickpocket (1959), it is the police, in Joan of Arc (1962) it is religion, and in Lancelot (1974), it is the king. With no exception to the rule, Bresson's final film, L’Argent (1983) submits its protagonist, Yvon, to a superior power which is suggested by the title of the film. Money or “visible God” (L'Argent, 1983, 00:56:03), as Yvon’s cellmate calls it, controls destiny with a divine-like power. As a Jansenist-leaning Catholic himself, Bresson often stripped his characters of free will in favor of fate. Gilles Deleuze (1983), a French philosopher and film critic, even qualified Bresson’s cinema as extremely Jansenist because of the dominant religious themes in his work. Through this scope, Yvon’s character is doomed before the movie even starts. He is trapped in a vicious cycle of sin, pushing him further and further into crime.


L’Argent’s story is fairly straightforward. "L’argent (1983) 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." (Criterion, n.d.). Yvon, working as a delivery driver, gets paid in counterfeit bills by a photo shop. Falling for the scam, he goes to a café where he pays using the bills he just received. The waiter notices the counterfeit money and says, "You're one of those crooks spreading counterfeit bills" (L'Argent, 1983, 00:10:08). Following the accusation, Yvon knocks him down. He manages to avoid jail time but gets fired from his job. In need of income, Yvon accepts a shady job as the getaway driver for a robbery. He gets caught and sent to jail. "Once inside, he becomes despondent and criminalized after learning that his child has died and his wife has left him" (Eggart, 2022). Corrupted by sin, the moment Yvon is let out of jail, he murders the two owners of a small hotel and steals their money. The next day, he meets an old lady who offers him to live with her and the family she takes care of, despite knowing full well that Yvon is a killer. He finally kills everyone in the house, including the old lady, and steals their money. The movie ends with him being sent back to jail.


To understand how divine power interacts with the film, it is necessary to get a better grasp of how Jansenism, a branch of Catholicism, operates: “Jansen stressed the damage caused to human nature by original sin—the innate depravity of humanity due to the primordial fall and requiring God’s grace to be saved […]” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2009). By this definition, Bresson’s characters are naturally corrupt by nature. Yvon constantly reconfirms the corruption by repeatedly sinning, locking his destiny to fatality. The catalyst to Yvon’s bitter fate is when he pushes the waiter. Bresson films this moment with a close-up of Yvon’s hand. The close-up’s power quickly becomes apparent as each crime is filmed with a close-up of the hands: Yvon’s push, his hands on the wheel of the getaway car, illegal exchanges of contraband in prison, and the swinging axe about to crush the old lady’s skull. The hand is not only the actor of the crimes but also the motif by the excellence of the grip. The close-up holds an unmatched grip on Yvon as each one seals his fate, whether he commits the close-up—they are crimes in this context—or someone else does, humanity’s original sin directs Yvon to evil.


Figure 1: Bresson, R. (Director). (1983). L'Argent [Still]. Janus Films.

At first, Yvon does not appear to be an evil person. Deleuze (1983) describes “in his extreme Jansenism, Bresson shows the same infamy from the perspective of works, that is to say, from the perspective of evil and good: in L’Argent […] Yvon only launches into the crime on the condition of the other” (114–115). Indeed, Yvon starts off as the victim of a crime, having been tricked into accepting fake bills. The condition of the other appears four times in this case. Firstly, the close-up shot of the teenager who knowingly paid the photo shop with illegal bills. Secondly, the manager of the shop, upon discovering the money, paid Yvon with it. Thirdly, the waiter refuses to give the fake bills back to Yvon. Finally, out of a job, Yvon needs to provide for his family, especially since his daughter fell ill. Every time, he descends to evil because of the other. The true culprit in all of this is the teenager who scams the shop. While the vicious circle of sin happens to trap Yvon, it is created and upheld by everyone involved as dictated by the Jansenist idea of original sin "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" (Criterion, n.d.). By all metrics, the protagonist is a victim of his environment, a dehumanizing material world. The film’s editing is the divine power driving Yvon’s fate.


However, Bresson purposefully avoids a causal analysis of his works. In order to do so, he erases his character’s psychology. “One effect of the Jansenist influence is Bresson’s total mistrust of psychological motives for a character’s actions […]. In Bresson, however, people act for no obvious reason, behave ‘out of character,’ and in general simply follow the destiny that has been mapped out for them”(Cardullo 2018, 246). Character psychology would allow a causal approach to the film. By labeling Yvon as evil, it is easy to imagine him stealing and killing. An evil person does evil things because they are evil. This analysis is impossible for L’Argent as Yvon is part of a whole rather than an individual. The close-ups of all crimes implicate everyone, not just the protagonist. As Jansenism indicates, all humans begin evil, burdened by original sin. Ridding characters of psychology has the effect of removing their individuality, rendering all the characters as part of a whole. Therefore, they are all evil. If Bresson’s characters act for no discernible reason, it is because they have little sense of individuality, submitting them to the mercy of fate. The lack of psychology prevents a causal analysis of the film. The logic works at first but quickly derails. Yvon loses his job because he had counterfeit bills. In need of money, Yvon participates in a robbery. Caught by the police, Yvon goes to jail. His daughter dies, and his wife leaves him, Yvon assaults a fellow inmate with a kitchen skimmer. He gets out of jail and kills two hotel keepers before taking their money. He is kindly welcomed into a home and kills everyone before taking their money. There is a clear psychological gap between hitting an inmate and cold-blooded murder. In fact, the jump between losing his family and violence is already incoherent, especially when taking into account that the inmateally helpful. While everyone in the cafeteria was talking about Yvon’s wife leaving him, the inmate shut all of them up, protecting Yvon. The link between the events is not psychological coherence, but spiritual.


Figure 2: Bresson, R. (Director). (1983). L'Argent [Still]. Janus Films.

Bresson unites the characters through common spirituality with close-ups. “By isolating the hand in close-up, Bresson cues the viewer to a relation between these images of the hand […]. In this way, the close-up becomes central to the narration of a social totality” (Price 2011, 199). Totality is the keyword. The hand is totality, the grip is totality. Yvon’s crimes are far from being the only close-ups in the movie. Plenty of close-ups unrelated to Yvon slip in, implicating him despite his complete innocence in the matter. "taken together [Bresson's editing and narrative elements], they constitute Bresson’s commitment to cinema as something transformative and creative, rather than shallow and reproductive. His goal was not entertainment, but a search for truth. It is this search, achieved through the totality of individual elements, which defines Bresson’s work" (Barrett, 2022). Individually, the close-ups mean very little. That is because the close-ups are a whole, a totality. Not just in the 'whole amount' sense, but also in the totalitarian sense, meaning that authority has complete control. Modifying the word totality is the word 'social'. The close-ups are social, the crimes are social. Everyone is involved in all evil in the film, that is the Jansenist influence. The absence of wide shots excludes individuals from each illegal act, making each of them faceless and therefore implicating everyone. As a matter of fact, the manager at the photo shop threatens the boy who ripped him off, but the teenager’s mother bribes him. Naturally, that was a close-up too. The close-ups reinforce themselves by erasing all causal logic. This works by showing the consequences rather than the causes. Rewinding down all the close-ups, Yvon pushing the waiter seems to be the cause of all his problems. Yet, that is only a consequence. Yvon did not go to jail for attacking the waiter, it was for his part in an attempted robbery. Yvon only accepted the role of the getaway driver because he lost his job, which goes back to the waiter. He lost his job for unknowingly trying to pay using counterfeit bills, not for pushing the waiter. Yvon’s close-ups were measures of rectification. He is the one who lost money because of the scam, and the waiter refuses to return the fake money, thus preventing Yvon from trading it back to the shop manager. The true culprit would be the teenager who used the bills in the first place. However, concluding that the teenager is responsible for the killings, in the end, is preposterous.


From one close-up to the next, one consequence after another, Bresson blurs all causes. The longer the film plays, the more invisible the causes become. By the end of the movie, Yvon himself does not know how he got here. When the old lady asks him why he kills people, he simply responds “for fun” (L'Argent, 1983, 01:08:00). This is an answer that would make sense for an evil person, but Yvon has little to no psychology, justifying none of his actions. The complete lack of any acting performance corroborates the absence of individual psychology as Christian Patey, the actor playing Yvon, keeps the same indifferent expression the whole movie including when he says “for fun”(L'Argent, 1983, 01:08:00). Bresson refused any performance to his actors as he wanted automation instead of expression (Pick 2015, p.228). He thinks of them as “models”, not actors, strengthening the idea of faceless crimes. In L’Argent (1983), automation appears under two main forms. The first is close-ups. Like a machine, Yvon keeps automatically committing crimes even when it is out of character and incoherent, as he is trapped in the cycle of original sin. The second is the acting or lack thereof. Bresson flattens both his actor’s physical and vocal performances, making them automatons (Tomlinson, 2004).




Figure 3: Carolin Lang as Elise and Christian Patey as Yvon in Bresson's "L'Argent" (1983).

In the end, L’Argent (1983) is heavily influenced by Jansenist beliefs, trapping its protagonist in a cruel twist of fate. The close-ups and the editing drive Bresson’s maxim (Pipolo, 2009) of original sin. Just like Yvon, most of Bresson’s protagonists are pawns in the game of fate, failing to recognize the cycle of evil that they, willingly or not, fall into. The totalitarian nature of deterministic crime removes individuality, spreading the original sin to all the characters, victims, and perpetrators. All powerful, the close-ups erase causes, showing only consequences and stopping the audience from accurately psychologizing the characters. The characters themselves do not exhibit any signs of psychology, making them closer to automatons than real humans. While Bresson’s films often have rather bleak narratives (Cardullo, 2015), L’Argent (1983) ends on a paradoxically good note. After killing the old lady, Yvon surrenders himself to the police, freeing himself once and for all of the money’s tyranny by facing a lifelong punishment: prison. The old lady, like Christ himself, is sacrificed to wash humanity of sin.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Barrett, A. (2022, May 31). What does 'Bressonian' really mean? British Film Institute. https://www.bfi.org.uk/features/robert-bresson-bressonian


Cardullo, R. J. (2018). L’Argent and the aesthetics of Robert Bresson, Reconsidered. Hermeneia, (3), 243-258.

Deleuze, G. (1997). Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (H. Tomlinson & B. Habberjam, Trans.). University of Minnesota Press. (Original work published 1983).


Eggart, B. (2022, February 12). L'Argent. Deep Focus Review. https://deepfocusreview.com/reviews/largent/

Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2009). Jansenism. In Britannica.com. Retrieved January 22, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Jansenism


Pick, A. (2015). Animal Life in the Cinematic Umwelt. In M. Lawrence & L. McMahon (Eds.), Animal Life and the Moving Image (pp. 221–237). British Film Institute.


Pipolo, T. (2010). Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film. Oxford University Press.


Price, B. (2011). Neither God nor Master. University of Minnesota Press.


The Criterion Channel. (n.d.) L'Argent (1983). Criterion. https://www.criterion.com/films/27588-largent


Tomlinson, D. (2004). Performance in the Films of Robert Bresson: The Aesthetics of Denial. In C. Baron, D. Carson & F. P. Tomasulo (Eds.), More Than a Method: Trends and Traditions in Contemporary Film Performance (pp. 71–93). Wayne State University Press.

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Yoran Praet

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