Sight and Sound Top 250 #135 – L’Argent (1984)

As we finally get back to our trip through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Movies of All Time list, we come to #135, Rober Bresson’s L.Argent. And as always I’ll note that for those just joining us, you can find a full introduction to what the Sight and Sound Top 250 list is, and a look at the complete list of the movies on it, along with links to the ones I’ve already written about here. And, if you want to be sure not to miss any of these posts, just head on over to the Facebook page and give it a “like”or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are also in the sidebar) where I post anytime one of these – or anything else on the blog, along with just random other links and thoughts that may not make it into full posts – goes up. Trust me, if you’re not following one or the other (or both), you’re not getting the full Durmoose Movies experience.


Robert Bresson is one of those film makers I’ve hear a lot of praise for, but I’ve never actually seen any of his movies.

I suppose it’s interesting, then, that I’m actually beginning my look at Bresson’s work with what would turn out to be his last film.

L’Argent claims to be based on a story by Tolstoy, though like many such adaptations, the final result bears little resemblance to its predecessor.

The story opens with a young boy, Norbert, entering his father’s study in order to receive his monthly allowance. When he asks for more money on top of what he is already getting in order to pay back a debt to a friend, his father rebuffs him, as does his mother on a subsequent appeal. Finally Norbert goes to a friend, Martial, for aid.

Martial pulls out a five hundred franc note and hands it to Norbert for inspection. Norbert notices nothing odd about the bill, but Martial tell him it is a fake, and that they will purchase something with it in order to turn it into legitimate currency.

The pair proceed to a local frame shop, where, despite the clerk’s initial hesitance, she takes the bill and gives them change. When the store’s owner arrives, he immediately recognizes the bill as fake and takes her to task for accepting it, whereupon she immediately reminds him that earlier in the week he had also accepted two counterfeit bills. The owner decides that rather then report the incidents to the police he will simply pass all three bills along to some unsuspecting soul.

That “unsuspecting soul” turns out to be Yvon Targe, a young man who presents the shop owner with a bill for delivering heating oil. Unfortunately for Yvon, the bill is recognized as fake by a waiter at a restaurant, and Yvon is arrested for trying to pass counterfeit bills.

When Yvon, accompanied by the police, returns to the photo shop to confront the owner, the employees of the shop lie, stating that they have never seen him before.Nonetheless, when he is brought to trial, Yvon manages to escape jail time, but as a result loses both his job and his reputation.

Finally, out of desperation, Yvon agrees to be the getaway driver for a bank robbery. The police manage to thwart the robbery, and while he is trying to make his own escape, Yvon is arrested. He is sentenced to three years in prison. During his time in jail, Yvon learns of the death of his daughter, and eventually receives a letter from his wife informing him that she is leaving him and moving on with her life

Now you might expect that the film would eventually lead to Yvon’s redemption, but that is not what Bresson has in mind here. I don’t want to give away much more, but I’ll simply say that the end of the film is both shocking and abrupt.

Bresson has a very interesting visual style that at first can seem a bit off-putting. There are times when he seems to focus more on objects than people, such as the scene where a group of four women in the prison are inspecting letters being sent to he prisoners. Instead of making the faces of the women the focal point of the scene as one might expect, Bresson centers his camera on the plastic bins in which the letters are delivered with the women seated in a circle around it.

There are other times also when objects become the focus of Bresson’s eye, such as when a woman carrying a cup of coffee is slapped by her father, and rather than showing us either of the two participants, the camera instead focuses on the cup and shows the coffee sloshing out of it as the act of violence occurs.

Another interesting feature of the film is Bresson’s tendency toward off- screen action. This is especially apparent in the bank robbery scene where the focus throughout remains almost entirely on Yvon waiting in the car as opposed to what is happening inside or outside of the bank. We get just enough of the proceedings to follow what is going on, but the emphasis is on Yvon and his reactions.

This emphasis is even more marked in the climax of the film where for the most pert we are shown the aftermath of events rather than the events themselves, though that doesn’t mitigate the horror of what is happening.

One final note I’ like to make about Bresson’s style is his emphasis on doorways and portals. Quite often throughout the film we are shown characters either standing in a doorway or even hidden by closed doors. Often Bresson will hold his camera’s eye on the doorway even after the portal has been closed or vacated just long enough to draw the viewer’s eye to it.

I said in the opening of this feature that L’Argent is my first encounter with Bresson’s work, and I think it serves as a very good one, as I am now definitely looking forward to exploring the director’s other films on this list.

Instead of the official trailer for the movie (which can be found on YouTube but is really just a rather abstract sequence of ATM doors closing (again showing Bresson’s penchant for focusing on objects) here’s a short clip from the film showing the bank robbery:

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