Director: Robert Bresson. Cast: Christian Patey, Marc Ernest Fourneau, Bruno Lapeyre, Didier Baussy, Béatrice Tabourin, Vincent Risterucci, Caroline Lang. Screenplay: Robert Bresson (based on the story "The Counterfeit Bill" by Leo Tolstoy).

Robert Bresson's L'Argent begins as a sort of concept picture, in which two spoiled teenagers of what looks to be the upper middle class pass off a forged bill to a photo-and-frame shop in their neighborhood. The forgery is discovered mere hours later; the shopowners are wise to the apparently rising tide of counterfeit bills, and indeed the woman who accepted the bill seemed duly alert to its dubious qualities when she nonetheless accepted it. Angered by their error but culpably passive in their means of taking revenge, they in turn pass their tiny reservoir of forgeries to the utility worker who replenishes their water tank. This worker, thus passed the baton of narrative focus, is caught tending these bills in a nearby restaurant; when he returns to the shop, the owner and his teenaged assistant deny having ever seen the man, and he is summarily taken to court, where he receives a lenient sentence but also a stern remonstrance from the judge, speaking on behalf of the "respectable" class of shopowners to whom he has given offense. Exiting the court, the smug shopowners congratulate their young employee for his utter sangfroid on the stand, rewarding him with a clip of bills that only underlines how much more easily they might have absorbed the cost of the bilked note than will the defendant, whose involvement in the affair also costs him his job.

A narrative this richly loded in incident and irony would be enough to support a feature, or at least a remarkable short, which is just what the tale was in its original form. Leo Tolstoy wrote "The Counterfeit Bill," the story from which L'Argent is loosely derived, at the very end of his career, not only after his Russian homeland had imposed a ban on his works but well after the gigantism of his major novels. Both out of necessity and a kind of moral inspiration, Tolstoy intended the story to be circulated by hand, offered among readers as a kind of furtive tender that obviously resonates with the passing of money in the story. Nagging away at this analogy, of course, is our presumption there is nothing "false" about Tolstoy's story, nor about Bresson's typically terse mounting of it. L'Argent, which was Bresson's last work as well as Tolstoy's, clocks in at a succinct 81 minutes, carried along by the sorts of austere, intermediary shots—establishing or merely illustrative in so many other movies, but primary in Bresson's—that impress with both their simplicity of form and content and their almost sublime communication of nuance, depth, spirituality.

Rendered in such a style, much less by such a revered auteur, L'Argent radiates a kind of integrity that borders on the unimpeachable, but I'm inclined to think Bresson would not want his movie to be received this way. Titling his film L'Argent, literally "Money," Bresson not only preserves but strengthens the tempting air of semblance among the faked bills, Tolstoy's contraband pages, and Bresson's own images. We note how Bresson's title expands Tolstoy's to encompass all money, not just the decoy versions of same, and the film is full of tightly emphasized moments of exchange—bills for merchandise, bills for fuel, meat for cigarettes, food for confession, money for blood—that force us to consider the film as a meditation on the very act of barter, the very expressions of value and receivership, including the exchange of our own money for Bresson's sounds and images. Surely it matters that the site of the first and most fateful counterfeit in exchange is in a store that vends photography and its implements, and that this store is the site of so very many mendacities: hypocrisy, embezzlement, theft. It's important, I think, to maintain L'Argent as a question, not an object. What is the film showing, and what it be faking? What happens when you hold not just l'argent but L'Argent up to a bright light?

Review to be continued. Grade: A–

Cannes Film Festival: Best Director (tie)
National Society of Film Critics: Best Director

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