In his ruthlessly clear-eyed final film, French master Robert Bresson pushed his unique blend of spiritual rumination and formal rigor to a new level of astringency. Transposing a Tolstoy novella to contemporary Paris, L’argent follows a counterfeit bill as it originates as a prop in a schoolboy prank, then circulates like a virus among the corrupt and the virtuous alike before landing with a young truck driver and leading him to incarceration and violence. With brutal economy, Bresson constructs his unforgiving vision of original sin out of starkly perceived details, rooting his characters in a dehumanizing material world that withholds any hope of transcendence.
Robert Bresson’s last film, L’argent, comes to Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, who present the film on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a new 2K restoration that comes from a 4K scan from the 35mm original camera negative.
The image, overall, looks quite good and I was more than impressed with how film-like it is. Grain is rendered especially well, remaining natural and clean, never showing a sign of noise or compression. The level of detail is quite extraordinary, even in longer shots, and all the fine textures present in walls, clothing, and exteriors pop off the screen. It’s an absolute stunner in this regard, quite extraordinary and an undeniable improvement over the previous New Yorker DVD.
Where I question this presentation (and this seems to be common with a lot of these restorations conducted by Éclair Laboratories) is just how yellow the image is. It’s very yellow, skin tones looking jaundiced, “whites” looking yellow, yellow everywhere. And then—yet again—this throws off the black levels in a number of scenes, flattening them and crushing out details, though not to as extreme a degree as other titles: at least the climax of the film, which takes place in a low lit setting.
Like other titles that suffer the same “issue” it’s possible that this is how the film is actually supposed to look, but again it’s odd and does throw off other aspects of the presentation. Still, the image is, at the very least, sharp, stable, and cleanly rendered without any digital anomalies to worry about.
Bresson’s film has a lot going on in it in terms of sound, from slightly exaggerated sound effects to its use of music, and the lossless PCM 1.0 mono track does a fine job delivering it. There’s a bit of range to it, though dialogue is one note. Still, I found music pleasant and the track is quite clean, free of distortion and damage.
For a rather big title there’s not a lot on here for supplements but the ones we do get (both of them) are at least good. My favourite would have to be the footage from a 1983 Cannes press conference, with Bresson front and center. He and members of the cast take questions from the press (and I think general attendees) in the audience. A number of subjects are covered in the 30-minute segment (that I think is more a compilation and not the entire conference) and Bresson gets really passionate when he talks about the sound design in his work, talks about how he sees good (instead of evil) in the ending, and talks about what a film should be from his point of view. But he’s mostly frustrated with the questions he gets and a lot of the time he offers short answers, sometimes just one word. He seems especially annoyed with one gentleman in a white cap and it’s during this portion where things get a bit tense. The conference actually doesn’t offer a lot of insight into the film itself surprisingly but it gives a fascinating first-hand look at the director.
”L’argent” A to Z is a new visual essay by scholar James Quandt and it examines the film and the common themes, imagery, framing, and editing that it shares with his previous work. The essay is broken down into 26-chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet, and covers topics like his use of colour, the significance of doors, presentation of objects, and so on. It’s not a bad essay and some of the observations can be in-depth, but the format can feel a bit rushed, since each letter of the alphabet only gets, on average, about 2-minutes of time each (the segment runs around 51-minutes total).
A 27-second trailer closes the disc, which Quandt touches on in his essay (it just shows ATM machines). The disc supplements, though fine, feel slim, but Criterion does at least include a decent sized booklet at about 40-pages, featuring an excellent scholarly essay on the film by Adrian Martin and a reprint of an interview between Bresson by Michel Ciment, which was conducted in 1983 but appeared in a 1996 edition of Postif. It’s a fantastic read, with Bresson expanding on some subjects he does touch on in the Cannes interview, like getting into more detail about what he thinks a film should be.
I would have expected more material, and I’m very shocked Criterion didn’t carry over the Kent Jones commentary found on the New Yorker DVD (maybe they were unable to licence it) but both of the key supplements are worth going through and the booklet is a pretty significant addition.
The release is a bit of mixed bag. The supplements are good but slim, and I’m not entirely sure why Criterion didn’t carry over the New Yorker supplements (especially the Kent Jones commentary) and the colours in the final presentation lean heavily on the warm side of things. Yet, in spite of that, the overall image is stable and clean, looking very film-like. Still, I think it’s a strong upgrade over the old New Yorker DVD and recommend it based on that.