Robert Bresson’s films are unmistakable. He eschews the traditional, instead opting for the authentic. In his marvelous Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), Bresson directs without a trace of sentimentality. Heartstrings are pulled but honestly, and Balthazar’s life and death are all the more shattering because of it. His criminally underrated Lancelot du Lac (1974) displays the knights of King Arthur without gloss but as they likely were. There is no glamor to them. They’re heartless and selfish; impossible to like but equally impossible to ignore. In L’Argent (Money), Bresson continues his examination of the psyche in a more modernized setting. The bleak nature is omnipresent throughout. There’s no sugary underbelly.
The film begins with false bank notes circulating throughout town. Counterfeits are passed along and a 500 franc note winds up in the hands of an innocent man named Yvon. Unknowing of its origin, he tries to spend it and is arrested. He loses his trial and is wrongly jailed. While imprisoned, his wife sends him a note informing him that she’s leaving him and taking their child. With his life crumbling, Yvon disintegrates until he’s no better than the forgers themselves.
Despite his hardships, Yvon’s temper appears at an even keel throughout most of the picture. At his trial, his composure never wavers despite seeing three years of his life unjustly flushed away. His gaze is expressionless. During his stay in prison, he remains much the same. However, the facade becomes uncovered after his release; Yvon has been emotionally destroyed. He resorts to a life of despicable acts and internal struggles, leading to a climax of great power and, in typical Bressonian fashion, cold splendor.
Bresson’s visual style is unsparingly honest. There’s no beauty, just minimalism. We learn of a jail break only through the crack underneath a prison door: the light shifting, the alarm sounding. Murder is signified by the blood washed off the killer’s hands into the sink. Bresson’s obsessive leg and arm shots force us to use our imaginations; there are no eyes to tell us what the characters are feeling. We feel as though we ourselves have experienced Yvon’s travails.