Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 12 September 2005
Source New Yorker DVD
Features: Robert Bresson
What can I but enumerate old themes?
— W. B. Yeats, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”
Elsewhere in these pages I have written about the strange category of “late films,” that set of idiosyncratic swan songs offered up by major filmmakers in the twilights of their careers. In film, as in other media, these works tend to be highly mannerist, extreme, or even inaccessibly intense, refining and distilling the themes and styles of the artist’s entire body of work. Cinema is a particularly rich medium in which to examine these late works, not only because of the itinerant theories of auteurism that have obtained in film criticism for the last half-century or so, but also because the whole economic superstructure of film would seem to defy the making of these highly individual, usually quite odd films.
Nonetheless, there are those examples of filmmakers, like Hitchcock, Bergman, and (seemingly) Scorsese, who, through whatever channels, have managed to finance a steady stream of films late into their careers. And then there are those uncountable numbers of other filmmakers — Sternberg and Dreyer, to name two personal favorites — who have needed to labor to get the funds required to affix their final, weirdest visions onto celluloid. All of this is not so much to valorize one type of filmmaker over another — examples from each category can be revelatory, ridiculous, or both — but rather to call attention to the particular sets of circumstances under which these films are made (or otherwise undone). It is also partly to point out that, while dealing with the works of individual directors-as-auteurs, it often behooves the critic, like it or not, to get her hands dirty with the subject of money.
Which of course also brings us to the subject of Robert Bresson. Most appraisals of Bresson’s career note that the director made “only” thirteen films over a forty-year span, but in many respects it is a wonder that the director was able to work as consistently — and as eccentrically — as he did. Like Kubrick, Bresson’s output was steady, if not prodigious; but unlike Kubrick, Bresson had no major-studio patronage or box-office clout, and adamantly refused to work with professional actors (let alone stars). Drawing upon the investments of small European production companies and financiers, with occasional assistance from the French government (yay socialism!), the director was able to slowly build his body of work, capped off by his final film, L’argent, in 1983. A subsequent bid for a film based on the Book of Genesis found no financial support, and so Bresson spent the last fifteen years in retirement in his apartment on the Île St. Louis in Paris.
In interviews, Bresson’s attitude towards money seems somewhat cavalier; he is fairly candid about the effect that financing has on his films. (Asked why he decided to make Une Femme Douce his first film in color, Bresson replied, “Because I suddenly had money for it.”) And so, it is rather revealing that so many of his final films — and especially the aptly titled L’argent — deal explicitly and so scathingly with modern materialism and greed. Bresson is not often noted for his engagement with social or political issues, but his films consistently address the physical and spiritual effects of poverty and crime, and they seem to do so with increasing urgency as his career progressed.
“Economy” is the buzzword for Bresson’s style as a whole, in financial as well as aesthetic terms, and in his final film, the director pares his style down to its barest elements. His vision of contemporary France is quiet and pallid. Action is portrayed in either dispassionately wide compositions or parsed into a series of almost analytical close-ups. The film exalts in the curiously underplayed, yet theatrically automatic gestures that are Bresson’s trademark. But while L’argent portrays its characters in a typically remote, even clinical manner, it is difficult not to see the rather sour appraisal of modern society beneath the film’s cool surface. In tracking the destructive path of a false banknote and the fates of its many casualties, L’argent dissects the corrosive properties of money on both the honest and the dishonest. Gone is the wayward journey toward love and redemption that saves the Pickpocket, and in its place is a chaotic succession of crimes and betrayals, arbitrary, self-perpetuating, and unredeeming.
Bresson’s final film is forcefully grim and unforgiving, and yet the film’s peculiar tension lies in its seeming disinterest in its human subjects. L’argent represents the director’s complete evacuation of the subject of human motivation and demonstrates the enormous departure of his later work from his earlier confessional and epistolary films. These early works are no less ambiguous than the later ones, but like so many director’s late films, L’argent is notable for its complete de-emphasis of character in favor of affect and surface. In one scene, an actor conveys that he is moved to tears by another’s benevolent action: stone-faced, and in a single, absurdly perfunctory gesture, the actor simply wipes an invisible tear from his face. This staginess, this circumscribed quality, is recurrent throughout the director’s films. But while many associate this quality with a sense of fatedness, of predestination, here this quality is more claustrophobic, more restrictive than transcendent. The swing of an axe or the breaking of a wineglass seems less like the manifestations of a grand design than a link in a disastrous and inevitable chain of events.
Carl Dreyer’s last film, Gertrud, concludes with idealism in dissipation; Kubrick’s swansong, Eyes Wide Shut, closes with one questionably reassuring syllable; in L’argent, greed and circumstance draw the characters to devastating ends. Coolly finishing his aperitif, the protagonist ends his bloody crime-spree, availing himself to the mechanism of justice. These are acts as puzzling and underwrought as any in Bresson’s films, but here they bear the extra weight of the director’s subtle indignation. Human action is chaotic and its whims arbitrary. Patience, restraint, and quiet attention to all things—these are the attributes that Bresson’s films consistently espouse to the very close of his last grim and exasperated film.