I must admit before I begin that I have long considered Robert Bresson a spiritually minded director by reputation, which is my favorite kind of director, and ‘L’Argent’ is a film I have been wanting to watch for years. It’s hard to write about this film without that context, because it is nothing like the expectations I had for it, which makes it hard to process and discuss properly. I try to never write traditional reviews in these essays or say whether I like or dislike a film, and ‘L’Argent’ is clearly a classic film artfully made, but it definitely threw me off with its aesthetic style and the narrative direction it took. It has a very disaffected feel to it, and none of the characters in the film show emotion or possess redeemable qualities. The very nature of the film is transactional, as we follow several characters attempts to lie about, steal, or reclaim money. As the title suggests, it is all about the money.
Given my own personal assumptions and expectations about the film and its director, I expected to get some sort of uplift by the film’s end, but instead it almost wallows in the darker side of human nature. The camera itself often focuses in closely on objects and bills reflecting the characters’ focus on them above human relationships. It is also focuses in a lot on doors and drawers, specifically handles and locks, and how people use them to separate themselves or their possessions from one another. It also portrays the city as a cold and unfriendly place, an anonymous playground where other people also become objects for one’s own aims and thoughts of the consequences on others rarely seep in. To me, it presented modernity itself as nihilistic, without redemption. Even when we receive a reprieve from the oppressive coldness of the city, it is only to watch the way the disease of city life spreads and infects the unspoiled countryside through one of the main characters who has been spoiled by the city. While I can agree with most of the philosophical points I believe the film to be making, and I tend to love a lot of dark and depressing films, even I found it hard to sit through so much coldness without a light at the end of the tunnel.
That leaves me to ask, what is about this film compared to other heavy films I have loved that keeps me at a distance? For one, I believe it must be the blatant and intentional focus on object over character, especially in its visuals. Another major emotional turnoff right from the start was the entitlement of the two characters who set the whole chain of events in the film in motion. They are the young and spoiled offspring of wealthy families who pass off a counterfeit bill that is the downfall of many other characters simply because the allowance one boy receives from his father is deemed insufficient compared to his friends. I am not one to complain about entitlement, and in fact I hate that word entirely because I loathe listening to the actually entitled people in America, the wealthy and privileged, bemoaning the entitlement of millennials in order to deceive the public and distract from the negative effect their own greed and self-preservation has had on the world. However, these two young men come from exactly that kind of family where their entitlement is learned and enabled by their parents, who give them money and also use money to buy their way out of trouble. Thus, the two characters who do the most damage with their careless behavior face the least consequences of anyone. It is something we see everywhere in America and the rest of the modern world, and I believe it is a large part of what is driving the current frustration around the globe, which is then being exploited by those same people who are causing it. I guess seeing that reflected so clearly in this film and the trickle down effect it has on the poor and underprivileged characters is a bit too real given where the world is at right now to allow for an enjoyable experience for me personally.
Despite my own reaction to the film, I do not want to leave you with the impression that this is a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, for me to have such a reaction the film must be a quite astute and technically impressive piece of art. I have never seen a film shot and edited so precisely to highlight the material objects in our lives and how they drive us to act badly. Of course it is not the objects themselves that create this response in us, but our relationship to them. The way the film favors the characters’ relationship to these objects and physical spaces over their relationships to each other is a feat in itself, and colors the way we see the world of the film. I started by questioning if this film had any spiritual nature to it, but of course spirituality cannot be properly understood and appreciated without the absence of spirituality. By highlighting a world without spirituality, in a way, I suppose ‘L’Argent’ could be considered a spiritual film.