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Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film, plus some poetry

Reflections on Bresson 5: Corruption

Bresson was over 80 when he made L’Argent. At the time, in answer to questions about the pessimism of his films, he argued that they were not pessimistic, just more lucid. This ‘lucidity’ is a key to Rembrandt’s late self-portraits: they are all experienced, youthful innocence has vanished.


What might this lost innocence be in the first half of Bresson’s career? The rituals in the nunnery (Les Anges du Péché), the simplicity of the priest (Journal), Fontaine’s trust of Jost (A Man Escaped), the graceful hands of the trio picking pockets at the Gare de Lyon (Pickpocket), Jeanne saving Michel in prison, like the angel with St Peter (Pickpocket), the simplicity (again) and intelligence of Jeanne d’Arc or of a donkey (The Trial of Joan of Arc, Au Hasard Balthasar). The two late student films (Quatre Nuits, Le Diable probablement) suggest that Bresson was shifting his hopes to a new generation.


These things have all gone from L’Argent, where human corruption does not derive from a cramped rural setting or among impoverished students in left-bank Paris, nor does it originate in prison – all places where you could argue that the corruption is the result of the environment – but among the comfortable bourgeoisie of a prosperous, cultured capital city. We are given a vision of what a society which sanctions greed for money would look like, a world where corruption is naked. In this environment, Yvon moves and is overwhelmed so that his innocence is corrupted not by the physical environment but by the moral one. Bresson might say (in heaven): “This is what I’ve been trying to convey in my thirteen films. Only in L’Argent was I as lucid as I knew I could be.”


This sense of corruption is inextricably linked with his project, never realised, of making a film of the Book of Genesis. Its central event is the Fall of Humankind in the persons of Adam and Eve, the original sin from which follows the rest of the world’s corruption. It would have given an opportunity for Bresson to be more lucid still.