Robert Bresson: L’Argent and The Trial of Joan of Arc.
(BFI – Blu Ray 2022)
Of all the great film makers of the 20th century Robert Bresson was the most solely spiritual. His camera revealed what was concealed: a cinematic representation, or more subtly an apprehension, of what we would call the soul of his characters. Bergman and Tarkovsky were equally soulful directors but also displayed a sensual passion that you can’t really apply to Bresson. Carl Dreyer’s films are close but in a very different manner, to the inwardness of Bresson. Only in Pickpocket does Bresson offer a kind of transcendent outcome comparable to Dreyer (especially Ordet).
In spite of his Catholic Jansenism background Bresson eschews any religiosity. We get the naked shock of epiphany whether you’re a believer or not. The surprise for his actors was not to act (Bresson hated the idea of an interpretative performance) but to ‘live.’ And to convey that living involved a highly rigorous direction both measured and contemplative. His actors or non-actors were often framed against objects that suggested a soul of things as much as persons. To this Bresson brought a minimalist painterly style reaching out, in his late films, to abstraction.
“Not a moment goes by…when I don’t think about painting. I tell my eye to paint, now to stop painting.” This is what Bresson said on being interviewed about L’Argent. Vermeer, Chardin and Cezanne have been cited by commentators as leaving their mark or sense of stillness upon Bresson. To these I would add the minimalism of Kandinsky.
L’Argent (1983) was Bresson’s final film. For me it’s one of his finest and probably the purest expression of Bresson’s style. It was inspired by The Forged Coupon (A 1911 novella by Tolstoy). The setting is now 1980’s France. A young man Norbert asks his father for his monthly allowance plus a little more as he is in debt to a schoolmate. Father refuses him extra money. Norbet meets a friend who shows him a forged 500 franc note. They go to a photo shop and buy a picture frame. The manager tells off his partner for accepting the money. He instructs his young assistant Lucien to pass the fake note on to Yvon, the young man who’s called to be paid for delivering heating oil to the shop. For this he will give Lucien money to buy a new jacket. Yvon tries to pay for a restaurant meal but the manager spots the forgery and calls the police. The photo shop owners lie to the police saying they have never seen Yvon before. Yvon is put on trial. The case is dropped but Yvon loses his job. At this point he’s drawn into criminality. He’s caught providing the car escape for a bank robbery. After three years in jail he’s released only to commit a horribly violent attack on a family.
There are many episodes in L’Argent whose explosive power make you see and feel the violent indifference of the world that Yvon has been thrown into: the terrible consequences following on from the forged money
The moment when Yvon, now released from prison, is staying in the house of an elderly woman and her father. She is taking a bowl of coffee to Yvon. Her father calls her a mad fool to bring Yvon to the house and then slaps her face hard. The coffee is almost spilt. Yvon, waking up in the barn, drinks the coffee, stands up and notices an axe lying on the straw. We know the woman knows Yvon has killed people. She’s told him that if she were God she would have forgiven him. Breson’s cut to the force and sound of the inflicted slap is devastating, not so much for its violence but its cruel rejection of the pressing need to forgive. It punctures the viewer with a visceral power akin to a philosophical statement about good and evil.
Later when the axe is wielded by Yvon and strikes her down we don’t witness the victim’s fall. Bresson cuts to a shot of a knocked over table lamp allowing us to see, trapped in its beam of light, blood that’s now stained a rose-patterned bedroom wallpaper.
The murderer’s act has a beautiful Baudelairean horror: stark without redemption. It’s strangely almost Yvon’s offering, an answer to the coffee she freely gave him: that ‘cup of kindness’ being reciprocated by her brutal death. Though Bresson leant on Tolstoy’s story his fierce editing excites and shocks in the manner of Dostoevsky’s anxious prose to make you inevitably think of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment.
Earlier in L’Argent female clerks open letters sent to the prisoners. One of them reads a note from Elise (Yvon’s wife) saying that their four year old daughter has died from diphtheria. The letter is stamped and filed for delivery (Soon after the tragedy another letter will arrive from his wife, announcing she is unable to see him again, and is stamped pending, which for Bresson takes on the power of a damning force). At meal time Yvon goes to strike, with a raised cullender, a prison guard as if he’s in rehearsal of the axe killing to come.
Placed in solitary confinement Yvon attempts to commit suicide, but recovers to find that Lucien the photo-shop assistant, who committed perjury, and now a thief, is in the same prison as himself. The irony and bitterness of the situation are compounded. Bresson observes without judgement the consequences to be inexorably played out. Unlike Tolstoy or Dostoevsky redemption doesn’t occur – how many real doors are opened and closed in this film where imprisonment also becomes a sensibility that’s difficult to escape from.
Bresson’s stark and compressed editing is extraordinary. His paring down to the essentials becomes neither forbidding nor inviting. Life is not to be wholly understood only to be lived and L’Argent is filmed with the inevitability of ancient Greek tragedy.
“The truth is inimitable, the false untransformable.” this severe announcement from Bresson echoes throughout his devastating masterpiece, L’Argent.
There have been many film versions of the life of Joan of Arc ranging from silent cinema (Dreyer and earlier pioneers) to the sound-film tellings of Victor Fleming, Otto Preminger, Roberto Rossselini, Jacques Rivette et all. Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1961) is remarkable but overall it’s a minor film with major strengths. Florence Daley’s performance as Joan is superb, carrying great conviction as Joan constantly rebukes her cold inquisitors. The question and answer trial procedure is very gripping but dramatically limiting, deliberately so – no deep emotional involvement in the process as depicted by Falconeti in Dreyer’s 1928 La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (a film that Bresson intensely disliked.)
There are numerous Bressonian shots of hands and feet, chained and freed. And the greyness of the photography feels in keeping with the sombre ordeal. Yet I felt Bresson was working within heavily imposed constrictions (the real trial details) that didn’t stretch Bresson enough to allow his usual complexity. It feels a little too Joan-centred a film. Also the moments of English dialogue breaking up the spoken French were unnatural and stilted. The constant cries of “Burn the witch” unfortunately sounded like dialogue in a badly dubbed into English horror film.
However the death of Joan, her very burning, is brilliantly filmed. Smoke appears to apocalyptically cover the whole of the sky; the frightened priests’ withdraw from the heat of the fire and most disturbing is the seeming vanishing of Joan, herself. Bresson’s final image of a charred stake, devoid of a martyred body, is searing, mysterious and moving.
Both Bresson’s films, along with his superb Pickpocket, are now available in fine prints from the BFI. Great to have them in blu ray straight after the comprehensive Bresson season at the Southbank.
Alan Price © 2022.