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I don’t know who it was, but somebody thought he could help those unfortunate, undead souls. The zombies of Romero have been revivified, cleansed of their hunger for human flesh, transported to Paris, and restored to humanity. And yet, they remain in many senses mindless automata.
“Calm down,” the prison guard says to Yvon. If either of them were any calmer, he would not have a pulse.
“I have the right to worry,” Elise says to Yvon. She does not seem worried.
“We fear death because we love life,” Yvon’s cellmate says. He does not seem fearful or loving. In fact, he seems more protective of his booze stash than he does of anyone’s life.
The most open expression of emotion in this movie comes from the dog. When he barks or licks at his dead master’s face, I understand the feelings of sadness and alarm. Even when Yvon learns his daughter has died, he hides his face in a pillow so as not to reveal true distress.
Bresson’s touch is delicate enough that such sequences rarely become grotesque. The world he depicts is off-kilter, but it is still our world and cannot be presented to us in the savage but honest manner that genuine human emotion would require. If everyone in L’Argent acted as we might think they should, we would have little besides some inert moralistic drama. If everyone acted like robots, we would only see a ridiculous burlesque.
Instead, Bresson turns everything a few degrees away from center, just enough for us to note the listing of the boat. Policemen respond soundlessly to a hostage situation, and one of them fires a revolver in a crouching stance that might be the least conducive to accuracy possible. Two teenagers pass off a forged banknote while feigning nonchalance as poorly as any criminal ever has. No one speaks any extraneous words. The camera lingers a moment too long on a closing purse or a slip of paper. The editing becomes so quick that it crunches the end and beginning of scenes together in a mishmash rhythm.
Make no mistake; these people are, if not robots, than at least behaviorally programmed. They are the opposite of Coppelius’ dolls. Those machines become lifelike through a special set of lenses, which represent the cinematic apparatus. The characters of L’Argent are humans, but the camera renders them mechanical.
L’Argent is overtly a critique of bourgeois culture. Trouble flows downhill, from Norbert’s icy, aristocratic family to the tawdry buffoonery of the photo shopkeepers to hapless Yvon. Everyone (forgive me) passes the buck, and the little guy get screwed in the end. If there is a hero here, it is Lucien, who at last glance has seemingly escaped prison to carry on his mythological Robin Hood campaign. After all, he has Yvon on his conscience. He has to answer for that now.
The movie often seems too pallid to offer a focused social critique, though. Rachel Moore interprets the mise-en-scene as that of a modern phantasmagoria, which she describes as offering “alienation, repetition, reification, fetishization, the objectification and degradation of the body, and money as a live, unnatural thing.” In so many ways, Moore’s descriptions are spot-on (fatigued subjects, repetition, the jarring sound design), but I was puzzled by her overall characterization. If this is phantasmagoria, it is not one I understand or recognize. The dream-logic is not present. The movie’s sense of people and objects seems too opaque for her sharp characterizations (and speaking of opaque, how about that prose). Fatigue and opacity do suffuse dreams, but the phantasmagoric experience does not offer the pointed delineations of meaning which Moore identifies.
Strange that anyone would consider this a slow movie. It's not quite the same masterpiece that Mouchette or Balthazar are it is a comparative action thriller.
This French art picture develops well from a seemingly insignificent event of corruption into an ever-rolling snowball of tragedy and evil. The protagonist of the story, Yvon, is deceived, then turns to crime in despair and thus dooms his family and himself. Interesting stuff, but the character's extreme misfortunes, overall lack of emotion and character, and the unlikely events in the last half of the movie actually punctuates the effect. It is a movie shot extremely realistic, yet portrays what is in the end very unrealistic developments and characters.
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In 8 official lists
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This movie ranks #39 in The New York Times's Book of Movies
This movie ranks #112 in Sight & Sound's The Greatest Films of All Time
This movie ranks #164 in TSPDT's 1,000 Greatest Films
This movie ranks #334 in Halliwell's Top 1000: The Ultimate Movie Countdown
This movie ranks #378 in Cahiers du Cinéma's Annual Top 10 Lists
This movie ranks #696 in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
This movie ranks #756 in Jonathan Rosenbaum's Essential Cinema
This movie ranks #1028 in The Criterion Collection