This energetic, enigmatic indictment of capitalism is a late masterpiece by Robert Bresson, imbued with a fierce cinematic power and tautly positioned amid the coldly structured complexities of human behaviour.
Adapted from a novella by Leo Tolstoy, Bresson’s portrait of an ordinary man driven to evermore extreme crimes by social and financial forces beyond his control probes uncomfortably beneath the surface of ‘civilised’ society. This compact, rigorously stylised film and the awkward questions it poses, about the nature of forgiveness and the possibility of redemption, is a rich testament to one of cinema’s greatest auteurs.
The BFI presents Robert Bresson’s final film, L’argent, on an all-new Blu-ray edition. The film is delivered here on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. The disc is locked to region B and North American viewers will require a player that can playback region B content.
It appears BFI is using the exact same 2K restoration Criterion used for their 2017 Blu-ray edition, which was sourced from a 4K scan of the 35mm original camera negative. Yet again it’s an impressive looking restoration that has cleaned the image up incredibly, only a few very minor blemishes remaining. The encode doesn't look all that different in comparison to Criterion's, both looking about the same on a television screen. As it is we still get a nice film texture thanks to a decent rendering of the film's rather fine looking grain, and fine details pop out nicely with the picture never coming off soft.
Unfortunately, this presentation still features that cyany-greeny-yellowy look that Criterion’s had, and I will continue to assume that’s all still baked into the restoration. Blues rarely look blue (more of a cyan) and skin tones can look a little jaundiced. This could be all intentional, but it still impacts the black levels by making them appear a bit murky or flat in some scenes.
Since the colours have the same kind of signature found on a lot of Éclair’s and/or Ritrovata's restorations I do have to continue leaning towards the thought that the colours are more than likely not correct. I admit I don't know for sure, and I have to give some leeway since the colour scheme for the film is clearly bland anyways, but they just don't look right a lot of the time. Whatever the case the restoration is solid otherwise, and in that respect BFI's presentation still looks sharp.
BFI’s disc presents the French soundtrack through a lossless PCM 2.0 monaural soundtrack. It’s on par with Criterion’s: it’s clean, free of distortion and noise, and presents no severe defects. There can be a general flatness to be found in the film’s dialogue and effects, maybe due to their mannered nature, yet there are a handful of more violent moments (usually off-screen) where the sound effects are mixed at louder levels. The soundtrack is ultimately not going to show off any sound systems but it perfectly suits the nature of the film.
Criterion’s edition had a nicely done visual essay put together by James Quandt covering Bresson’s work but that disc was slim on content on the whole. BFI’s edition only carries over the trailer that appeared on that release (a montage of ATM machines, and this trailer is brought up elsewhere in the features here), everything else being unique to this edition. That includes 22-minutes’ worth of excerpts from Q&A session recorded at a Bresson retrospective this past year featuring Geoff Andrew, Jonathan Hourigan, and Nasreen Munni Kabir, the latter two having worked with Bresson. Though Kabir starts things off by talking about Bresson on a more personal level the general conversation is geared towards his work and what drew each of them to it, even if the subject matter of the film was dark. The three also talk a little about how his work has influenced other filmmakers, Paul Schrader getting a special mention, but how there also hasn’t been anyone like him since, Schrader even feeling to be the polar opposite of what Bresson was. It’s a wonderfully insightful discussion on Bresson’s style and the themes of his films, ending with an interesting little bit on how Bresson cast his films.
Taken from that same retrospective is a 9-minute presentation where Hourigan compares the final moments of Bresson’s First and Last films, respectively Les anges du péché and L’argent. Amusingly he was told by the showrunners to warn the audience there are “spoilers” to be found in his discussion since he’s going to show clips from the ending of both films, though this leads to him explaining how spoilers aren’t really a thing in Bresson’s films (A Man Escaped does more-or-less give away the end in its title). At any rate, after showing clips from each film (only the clip from L’argent is shown here, I assume rights issues prevent the clip from the Anges) he talks about the common elements of the endings and how Bresson’s craft and his view of the world evolved and changed from the first film. Interestingly, as Hourigan explains here using the original script as reference, Bresson had envisioned L’argent’s original ending to be a bit more violent than how it turned out. It’s a well-done presentation but it’s a little limited since we don’t get the clip from the other film (I haven’t seen it yet and I’m unaware of any DVD).
Created exclusively for this edition is a new video essay by Michael Brooke entitled Root of All Evil, providing a 19-minute in-depth examination of Bresson’s final film. Despite its rather short runtime the essay has some good meat to it, Brooke even going as far to drawing comparisons between the film and original source story, Tolstoy’s The Forged Coupon. He brings upthe original story’s second half, completely excised from the film, and the implications that can be drawn from Bresson’s changing of the title to simply (in its English translation) Money, removing any mention of counterfeits. He also goes over Bresson’s aesthetic, how violence is represented mostly through sound, points out visuals shared with his other films (that includes an obsession with shots featuring hands), and how the film does move at a frantic pace since it doesn’t linger on any of the "suspense' the film sets up. I would have expected a new commentary but this essay proves to fill that gap nicely. It’s packed with excellent insights and manages to be wonderfully succinct, getting right to the point.
Hourigan then appears one more time in a audio recording from an introduction he did for a screening of the film in 2007. Playing over the first 26-minutes of the film through an alternate audio track, Hourigan (who worked on the film) shares what he can recall about the production, sounding here to have been one of the more difficult of Bresson’s career due to reasons that included his age (he would have been around 81 when production started) and the fact the film used more locations than most of his other films. After talking about how he feels the film will stand the test of time he moves to taking questions from the audience, the first being around what was in 15-minutes’ worth of footage that Bresson cut out before getting to the close to 85-minute cut we have now. The only notable sequence Hourigan recalls being cut out was the ATM montage that would go on to become the film’s trailer. I guess the sequence would seem out of place but it sounds as though Bresson was experimenting and was possibly influenced by film editing of the time, James Bond films included.
BFI then reaches into their archives and pulls out the 1970 experimental film Value for Money, directed by David Blest. The film features a young woman taking a trip to the beach and discovering a strange device buried in the rocks and pebbles (it’s an English beach). It turns out it’s a coin operated device and when she starts feeding it change two figures appear on opposite ends of the beach and begin moving towards one another, one a religious figure (a priest I assume) and the other an older man in some sort of lever activated wheelchair that proves to be far from ideal for the pebble surface. Once the timer on the device runs out the two figures will stop until she feeds more change and eventually things take a turn for the bizarre if all of it wasn’t bizarre enough to begin with. The notes indicate the film is about the “coin-operated connections between money and religion” (two things that can be tied to the main feature as well) and sure, I’ll buy that. Whatever it is it’s a rather wild little short, and it appears it’s the only thing that Blest has ever made.
BFI then includes one of their usual superb booklets (limited to the first printing). Hourigan starts things off with a new essay that he wrote on 16th of June in 2022, marking the 40th anniversary of the first day of principal photography of the film (and the 15th anniversary of that introduction he did for the film in 2007), recounting more details around the production. Dr. Martin Hall then writes up an essay on the film and its director, which is then followed by a 1983 review for the film written by Tom Milne. There are then some notes around the film’s special features, which I presume were put together by Vic Pratt, the disc’s producer.
I still quite like Quandt’s visual essay on the Criterion disc, even if it did feel to rush through its topics, but BFI’s features bring in input from multiple participants and the content feels more extensive.
The presentation doesn't provide a real boost over Criterion’s but BFI’s new edition proves more satisfying when it comes to features.