The Money, Probably: Robert Bresson's final two films at BAM

by Jeff Nagy

Bresson’s last two, The Devil, Probably, and L’argent, remain trenchant, gimlet-eyed excoriations of modern life.

Le Diable, Probablement, image courtesy of BAMcinématek/Film Desk.

Money talks. “Methoughts the shilling that lay upon the table reared itself upon its edge, and turning the face towards me, opened its mouth, and in a soft silver sound, gave me the following account of his life and adventures.” So begins the main text of Adventures of a Shilling, an iconic protoneoliberal fantasia penned by Addison for the 249th issue of The Specator, appearing on November 11, 1710. Addison follows the vicissitudes of the shilling, beginning with its mining in Peru and arrival in England “under the convoy of Sir Francis Drake,” its minting in London, and discovery of “a wonderful inclination to ramble.” The shilling passes from apothecary, to herb-woman, to butcher, never so happy as when it is quickly exchanged, never so aggrieved as when it is “imprisoned” in a miser’s chest. At the end of a long life of exchange, the shilling is clipped and rubbed (for the value of its metal) before being melted down and coined anew. This little fable, in which the token of exchange expresses its love for the widest possible circulation in a broadening economy, dates from the very beginnings of a market-driven financial regime we would recognize as our own. If the shilling could speak today (ignoring the fact that it was withdrawn from circulation in 1990), the tone of its allegory might be darker, less exuberant, less sanguine for the fates of the human actors pulled into the undertow of its exchange.

Allegory is a country for old men, and Robert Bresson lived there longer than most. Not that his allegorical figurations of good and evil, present since the beginning of his career, remained stable over time. The placid purity and timelessness of Au Hasard Balthazar’s (1966) allegorical ass can seem cloying now—a heresy for Bresson fanatics, I know—but foreshadowed in that ass are the two more virulent ends of Bresson’s allegorical career. Balthazar already circulated as Addison’s shilling did, passing from owner to owner in a vicious circle of increasing exploitation, expiring finally as the contraband convoy for the vapidly malevolent, darkly sexual Gerard.

Since at least 1966, then, Bresson’s Christ-martyrs were already marked-to-market, the black- or gray- in black-and-white. But later in his life they became increasingly ambivalent, their martyrdoms more a mulish insistence on their own annihilation than Balthazar’s self-abnegating sacrifice. Eleven years later, now in pale, seraphic color, Balthazar pubesces into the petulant, nihilistic Charles of Le diable, probablement (1977), and hits maturity in L’argent’s Yvon Targe (1983). The latter’s sense of wounded pride in the face of a shop assistant’s false testimony as to the source of counterfeit francs allows the blame for the traveling fake buck to stop with him. On that cross of pyrite, Yvon consents to be crucified, descending afterwards into theft, prison, and eventually, murder.

This inverse development of monetized Messiahs in the director’s last two films is now on view as part of BAM Cinematek’s Bresson retrospective. Neither Le diable, probablement nor L’argent are often screened in the United States. The former has been described by punk pioneer Richard Hell, who will introduce the movie and answer questions at the 6:50 screening this Thursday, as “by far the most punk movie ever made,” and both of them remain Bresson’s most trenchant, gimlet-eyed excoriations of our contemporary. Prescient at their making, they now register almost with a visually sumptuous, psychically nauseous déjà-vu.

L'Argent, image courtesy of BAMcinématek/Photofest.

The latter of the two is called Money, and the joke of it is how little money there is in it, or at least how little “real” money. L’argent opens with a stylish montage of francs being dispensed from a Neolithic ATM, each pile neatly pocketed by its recipient, none of which are visible beyond the acquisitive hand. Parodying Adam Smith, it’s not here the invisible appendage that makes the money move around, but the close-up conjunction of these hands, bills, and the apparatus that secretes them that makes human agents invisible. Beyond this fiduciary foreplay, nearly all the money you see on-screen is either fake or circulates as part of a crime (the pelf in a bribe, the spoils of a theft).

A franc in the first act had better be spent by the third—a variation of the dramaturgical law coined by Chekov in relation to guns. In L’argent, this goes double for the false francs printed by two schoolboys unsatisfied with their allowances. The francs, circulating in cut-time, determine entirely the plot’s articulations and the fates of the morally-corrupted characters called to account for them: the schoolboys; the bourgeois shopkeepers who first accept them; Lucien, their petty-thieving and perjuring assistant; Yvon, the mechanic who innocently takes them in payment. Of course, only Yvon, who refuses to cook the books, is finally held accountable. The opening motif of the visibly capitalized hand asserts itself throughout, as money or its doppelganger increasingly dehumanizes, reducing the human actors in the film to vectors for its circulation.

One is tempted to wonder, in relation to Bresson’s queasiness over fiat money, about his use of non-actors, what he prefers, in Notes on the Cinematographer, to call “models.” Fiat money: money because-I-say-so :: models: actors because-I-say-so. Bresson, in a sense, “minted” his models in order to use them and discard them: “Do not use the same models in two films.” He preferred to cast them aside in favor of next year’s model.

Le Diable, Probablement, image courtesy of BAMcinématek/Film Desk.

Antoine Monnier, who plays Charles, the anhedonic, charismatic nihilist bent on his own destruction in Le diable, probablement, with his absolute blank affect and pre-Raphaelite angelic beauty, was undoubtedly one of Bresson’s best coinages. As in L’argent, the role for currency in Le diable . . . is entirely louche, limited to the purchase of drugs, guns, and Charles’s own death. Bresson’s penultimate film stages a contrast between two possible reactions to a globalized world already in the grip of multiple crises (religious, environmental, political, financial). Against Charles’s drifting, anemic nihilism, we’re given Michel, a neoliberal, responsibly green and thoroughly sanitary activist. The dichotomy is a false one, as false as both of the possible choices presented, and the convincing future synthesis Bresson presents is neither Michel, nor Charles, but Valentin. This parasitic heroin addict, who brings the movie to a close by shooting Charles, cutting him off in mid-sentence, and stripping payment from the corpse—only he manages to consume without purchase, and without remorse.

The Devil, Probably and L’argent both screen this week at BAM Rose Cinemas as part of their Bresson retrospective, concluding on May 6.

Jeff Nagy is a poet and co-editor of The Cladius App: A journal of fast poetry.