L'argent - Robert Bresson - money - hands - Norbert

1983, directed by Robert Bresson

Something odd happens in the last shot of L’argent. The customers at a busy restaurant gather to watch the arrest of the murderer Yvon Targe… but as the police lead Yvon away, the onlookers’ heads do not turn to follow him. Instead they remain fixed on the door he’s just walked through.

That they would focus on the door instead of the person is unnatural but not entirely strange. The whole movie has been a series of doors as much as it’s been a story of human beings – doors opening and closing, people walking through doors, characters framed by doors. The opening credits start with a metal door sliding shut over an ATM, and in the next shot Norbert approaches and raps on a glass door set at an angle to another door. Most movies are edited to show the essential actions of their characters, but L’argent often holds shots until someone leaves through a door. The movie never wastes a chance to show doors – car doors, shop doors, courtroom doors, prison doors, barn doors, the door to a safe. The last shot confirms what we should already know – that the omnipresence of doors has not been an accident of photography.

L'argent - Robert Bresson - Norbert - doors

Bresson created a similar pattern of doors in Pickpocket, which is also a story of crime, money, and prison. The doors there had represented the protagonist Michel’s isolation from society, imposed by a misguided philosophy that stressed the primacy of selfhood, a philosophy related to Sartrean existentialism. Michel’s two friends, Jeanne and Jacques (as in Jean-Jacques Rousseau), eventually pull him back into society, to a life rich with human connections. Jeanne’s first words to Michel are, “I have the key. I’ll open it for you,” and she proves to be his key back into the broader world after his antisocial views keep him behind doors, first figuratively, then literally in a prison cell.

Pickpocket is about an arrogant character who is eventually saved from his arrogance. A lot of the same arrogance shows in L’argent, particularly in Norbert and Lucien, but also in Norbert’s parents, his friend Martial, and the photo shop proprietors. Yvon however is not particularly arrogant. His two predecessors in the chain of crimes had willingly foisted counterfeit notes, but when he’s caught with them in a café he offers to take them back where he got them. When the waiter refuses his offer, and likewise when he’s fired, when his daughter dies, and when his wife leaves him, he’s a victim of circumstance. Though he makes bad decisions, it’s bad luck rather than malice that leads him to crime.

What had been a matter of personal outlook in Pickpocket has become sociological in L’argent. The individualism that had confined Michel to such a narrow existence has now spread through society, trapping the innocent. Between the self-centered attitudes of the rebellious postwar generation and the rise of right-wing economics that justifies selfishness, Western society had become more atomized in the 23 years between the two movies. Without negating the insights of Pickpocket, the fault line in L’argent has shifted from the opposition between individualism and society to something more complicated, something analogous but not equal to the distinction between matter and spirit.

L'argent - Robert Bresson - Yvon Targe

Doors are not the only pattern shared by Pickpocket and L’argent. The earlier film’s soundtrack is filled with sounds of the outside world that fail to penetrate Michel’s awareness until he thinks he hears Jeanne’s footsteps in the prison corridor, finally prompting him to open up to a life beyond his own constricted orbit. L’argent is also filled with incidental sounds of ordinary life, but their role is somewhat different. The soundtrack is a symphony of consonantal ambient sounds: the rustle of banknotes, vehicle motors, gunfire, glass breaking, police whistles, the jangle of keys, the splash of an axe dropped in water, Yvon scraping his cup on the prison floor, and of course countless doors opening and shutting. Instead of calling attention to an external world that’s being ignored, these crisp noises emphasize the materiality of the world the characters occupy.

If there’s one constant in the films of Robert Bresson, it’s a belief in the primacy of the immaterial. This might sound ironic coming from a suspected atheist, but Bresson tends to define this non-material in negative terms, showing characters or situations or a society where it’s missing. Religious terms like spirituality and the divine are convenient metaphors for this undefined substance, which includes the love missing from the priest’s life in Diary of a Country Priest or the social bonds missing in Pickpocket. The steam rising from the unseen locomotive at the end of A Man Escaped is a manifestation of the higher purpose Fontaine has been striving for in his escape – a purpose that the movie compares to the spiritual rebirth mandated in the Gospel of John, i.e. being “born again”.

Like most of Bresson’s films, L’argent has no shortage of religious allusions, including the line that defines the significance of the movie’s title. After Yvon’s suicide attempt his new cellmate pontificates on the modern world, calling money the “visible God”. The modern world, having discarded or deprecated the notion of a deity, finds it necessary to fill its role with something it can easily believe in, and money fits the bill. No one would have any trouble describing our present society as one organized around the worship of money, but money can be an object of faith as much as of worship.

L'argent - Robert Bresson - Norbert - Martial - classroom

When the woman from the photo shop, the first victim of the counterfeit bills, seeks the principal of Norbert’s school to report him, she finds the chaplain instead. Addressing Norbert’s class, the chaplain says, “Let’s set aside the wedding at Cana and discuss these counterfeit bills.” Cana refers to Christ’s first miracle, transforming water into wine at a wedding where the wine had run out. In a world where money is treated as a god, the forgery of bills is the equivalent of a miracle, creating value out of something almost valueless. The chaplain first calls on a student named Christian, asking him what he thinks. Christian answers, “Nothing.” In this materialistic world, religion, represented here by this aloof student, has lost its voice. After calling on a boy named Geoffroy who doesn’t know what to say, the chaplain calls on Norbert, who feigns surprise then gets up and leaves. The sound of the shutting door is his wordless answer, the phatic sound of sheer materiality sufficing to express the rebellious hatred he evidently learned from his wealthy parents.

Lucien, the photo shop assistant, portrays another facet of money’s influence, how the “visible God” replaces the moral influence once held by spirituality. He tells his friends, “I’ll be a good guy when I’m rich,” and after making lots of money through ATM fraud he performs acts of charity until he’s arrested.

L'argent - Robert Bresson - lantern - door - cross

Unlike Norbert, whose family has plenty of money but no love, or Lucien, who believes money to be a prerequisite to virtue, Yvon is corrupted by desperation for money. The three of them form a brief taxonomy of the ways that society’s exaltation of material value replaces the immaterial bonds, like love and friendship, that make life worth living. When Yvon goes to commit his final crime, killing the kind old woman who had taken him in, the movie calls up another religious allusion. Approaching the woman’s door in the darkness, Yvon holds up a gas lamp. The illumination of the lantern and the unusually long duration of the shot are both signs alerting us to look closely: the door is photographed to reveal the distinct shape of a cross in the wood. Yvon takes an axe to the door, symbolically attacking the movie’s last sign of the immaterial.

L'argent - Robert Bresson - final shot - restaurant - crowd

When the crowd at the restaurant stirs itself to watch Yvon being arrested, if they are anything like most crowds of gawkers they are not looking for insight. Rather they are fascinated by the material presence of a sensational killer. They are another symptom of the world’s perverse elevation of materiality. Their gaze strips Yvon of his humanity, and the movie tells us in no polite terms that for all they see in him they might as well be staring at the restaurant’s door.


Earth – Replacement of religious ideas with corresponding secular ideas

Night Train – Fetishization of material reality as a crowd gawks at a murderer

Pickpocket – Doors; ambient sounds; newspaper used ironically