PRINT November 2012


Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Le Menu de maigre (The Fast-Day Menu), 1731, oil on copper, 13 x 16 1/8".

BEFORE THE MASSACRE OF INNOCENTS in the final twenty minutes of Robert Bresson’s L’Argent, the director’s last and most drastic film, Bresson pauses his tautly vectored tale of exploitation and revenge to fasten his camera on a coffeepot nestled in a warming pan sitting alongside a café bowl that holds only a mote of light. This tabletop still life, lasting just a few seconds but granted eloquent implication through Bresson’s rapt close-up, signifies far more than mere calm before the slaughter. Marguerite Duras once commented that “Bresson’s filmic immensity is contained as much in a single one of his images as in the entirety of all of his images,” a truth nowhere more evident than in this nature morte, whose quietude, muted palette, and homely subject matter—fawn pot with chipped lid, squat metal basin, and empty bowl—recall the domestic still lifes of Chardin. Much about the composition evokes that anomalous painter of the ancien régime: the containers’ reflecting surfaces, alive with light; the diligently simplified arrangement of everyday objects; the long handle of the warming pan, the latter reminiscent of Chardin’s copper cisterns and kettles, turned toward the viewer, protruding into the flattened space of the image the way pipes, knives, and paintbrushes often do in Chardin.

Bresson’s precise, ravishing image of pot and bowl—one thinks of Proust’s declaration that “Chardin has taught us . . . a kitchen crock [is] as beautiful as a precious stone”—decants the factual into something both concrete and numinous, the tangible transformed into portent. (The violence with which the bowl’s contents will soon spill from an old woman’s hands prefigures the film’s climactic carnage.) L’Argent restores the “magic” of seeing intently that Diderot and Proust discerned in Chardin: Bresson gazes fixedly at common objects—telephone, camera, ATM—extracting them from the flux of perception and isolating them in the frame until they become strange, sometimes ominous instruments. Once the film moves from Paris into the surrounding countryside and inexorably toward the annihilation of a rural family, its implements—pitchfork, clothesline, lantern, washboard—assume the aura of the ancient, as does the murder weapon, an ax found half-hidden in hay. When that hatchet splatters the old woman’s blood—the violence intensified by Bresson’s characteristically metonymic style—the director renders the butchery “beautiful to behold” (Proust), as Chardin did his grotesquely eviscerated ray, through painstaking aesthetic effect: Bresson allows the oblate beam of an overturned table lamp to linger on the blood, sprayed across delicate skeins of roses on bedroom wallpaper, before the light expires.

“Not a moment goes by . . . when I don’t think about painting,” Bresson said in an interview about L’Argent. “I tell my eye to paint, never to stop painting.” Though most commentators, following Bresson’s description of his role as a metteur en ordre (an imposer of order), summon Cézanne as the director’s closest counterpart in painting, the unlikely Chardin, more distant in time and in sensibility, appears to have been most on Bresson’s mind as he made L’Argent, just as Watteau’s Pierrot, ca. 1718–19, is said to have influenced his dire 1966 film Au hasard Balthazar. As much a filmmaker’s filmmaker as Chardin was a painter’s painter, revered by most subsequent artists in his field, Bresson, too, began as a painter; and while he abandoned that vocation because it made him “too nervous,” he maintained a passion for Chardin throughout his career making films. Chardin’s resolutely secular world of preoccupied maids and boys absorbed in blowing bubbles or assembling châteaux de cartes—the latter an allegory of the hasard (chance) that Bresson perceived to be omnipresent despite his seeming belief in predestination—may contradict Bresson’s harsh Catholic, perhaps Jansenist, universe, with its emphasis on sin, grace, and God’s interventions (or lack thereof) on our barbaric earth. (Bresson described L’Argent thus: “A small transgression provokes a vertiginous avalanche of Evil until the moment the forces of Good arrive.” He forwent mentioning that the sole embodiment of good is killed off, leaving evil to prevail.) However, the Surrealist poet Francis Ponge, greatly admired by Bresson, felt that Chardin’s objects allow us “to begin to experience quotidian reality with religious feeling,” a sentiment apparent in Bresson’s similar assertion with respect to his late work: “I want to make people who see [my films] feel the presence of God in ordinary life.” Though the terse, clipped rhythm of L’Argent, which was edited with straight cuts (the only dissolves and segues are sonic) and abounds in abrupt, paratactic transitions, precludes the sense of hushed reverie found in Chardin’s genre paintings, the voided, monotone acting of the film’s “models”—Bresson’s term for his nonprofessional players, trained in neutral line readings and abbreviated movements—imparts an immobility and reticence akin to Chardin’s abstraction: The teen standing at the door of his father’s office in L’Argent’s first postcredits tableau could be one of Chardin’s coolly determined youths, intent on his task. And through their amassed portraits, both artists proffer a meticulous documentation of French bourgeois and working-class existence during their respective eras; Bresson’s life coincided with the entire twentieth century, Chardin’s with much of the dix-huitième.

Robert Bresson, L’Argent (Money), 1983, 35 mm, color, sound, 85 minutes.

Frequently compared to Vermeer’s, the quietly ostentatious compositions of Bresson and Chardin, paradoxical in their interplay of probity and sensuality, share motifs of wounded or dead animals (scrutinized with cruelly tender exactitude) and of glass and reflecting surfaces, though each is put to expectedly different ends. L’Argent, for instance, treats its many vitrines, shopwindows, and glass doors with severe irony, their transparency and reflectiveness promising clarity in a hopelessly occluded world. Similarly, the two artists share a penchant for red: Chardin’s rusts and rubies, in the supple leathers of a musette or in a slab of salmon, contrast with the incarnadine palette in Bresson’s last two films, the apocalyptic The Devil, Probably (1977) and L’Argent. The latter’s autopsy of the modern world inventories many registers of violent red: the judges’ crimson gowns, which flood the screen in disorienting close-up; the cherry-colored working gloves that “introduce” the film’s protagonist to us; the blood of his victims, swirling down the drain in a close-up that may pay homage to Hitchcock’s Psycho. (Bresson claimed that he rarely saw any movies, but he has been proved an inveterate dissembler.) The director, who frequently spoke of flattening his images, used techniques such as diffused or bounced lighting and post-flashing in L’Argent to achieve images of distilled clarity, objectlike in their concision and crisp articulation. Twice in the film, Bresson inserts a close-up that is initially indecipherable—first, an open door between two expanses of steel mesh, and later, more strikingly, the feet of a prison inmate planted behind two mottled metal bars, barely discernible in a dim and characteristically truncated composition—all the more baffling for the legibility of the compositions that bracket each. (Bresson spoke of editing as a process of enveloping an image with those on either side.) Diderot, whose Jacques le Fataliste Bresson had adapted in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), wrote of Chardin’s paintings, which employed multiple glazes to achieve their “vaporous” effects, “Come close and everything becomes blurred, flattened, and disappears; stand back, and everything is recreated and restored.” He could be describing the effect of Bresson’s two purposively arcane images.

André Malraux called Chardin a “subtly imperious simplifier,” a term that could apply just as well to Bresson, whose career-long process of dépouillement, of inexorable divestment, reached its apogee in L’Argent. The film achieves a kind of implosive density through self-reference; like Chardin, Bresson was a serial self-quoter. Designed to be a summa—the failing Bresson appears to have known this would be his last film—L’Argent returns to the themes of his early trilogy of imprisonment (A Man Escaped [1956], Pickpocket [1959], The Trial of Joan of Arc [1962]), reiterating several of their images, objects, and sounds, from the apertures through which cash is dispensed or exchanged to the unnerving squeak of the laundry cart near film’s end. Every object and instance recalls some other in Bresson’s cinema: the radiating ripples on the surface of a pond (Mouchette [1967]), the lantern used to light the murderer’s way (Au hasard Balthazar), the spy hole through which a policeman surveys his captive (The Trial of Joan of Arc), the prison soup cart (Les Anges du péché [Angels of the Streets, 1942]), the appearance of pornography in a holy place (The Devil, Probably), the look of complicity that binds criminal and victim (Pickpocket). Employing his trademark motifs (hands especially), radical anachronism, and Nouvelle Vague–ish in-jokes (a café called Chez Blaise, as in Pascal), and indulging his fondness for casting nonprofessionals somehow related to celebrity (in this case, Caroline Lang, daughter of then minister of culture Jack Lang, who helped get the movie funded), Bresson managed to make his final work a compendious précis of his career, the film’s extreme fleetness notwithstanding. (L’Argent’s running time is just eighty-five minutes, its average shot length ten seconds.)

In the debilitated last years of their long lives, Bresson and Chardin produced sharply divergent works. His eyesight deteriorating, Chardin painted charming pastel self-portraits, his softly modeled features behind large round glasses, swaddled in scarf and headdress cresting in a big blue bow; he looks like a sweetly pensive transvestite. Accorded his last chance, reportedly succumbing to senility, Bresson concentrated his powers in a bleak, unremitting alarum, its title as blunt as the instrument of murder wielded at film’s end. How does the master, ferociously allegorical in his two final films, conclude the latter—and thus his career? With a terminal image that evokes what Ponge found in Chardin: le sens du vide, a sense of emptiness. A crowd outside a café, excitedly gathered to witness the ax murderer being led away by police, ignores him as he passes, gazing instead into the now-vacant restaurant, hovering expectantly. Bresson positions us among the transfixed onlookers, staring into the void.

James Quandt is Senior Programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto and the editor, most recently, of Robert Bresson (Revised) (Indiana University Press, 2012).