The boy in Robert Bresson’s L’Argent (1983) who inveigles the other into passing the forged note is an art-lover. He displays his black-leaved book of Baroque-era Art reproductions-lush Rubensesque nudes-with the comment: “The human body is beautiful.” In the context, these carmine-skinned nymphs in their black frames come to resemble a pimp’s album. Appropriately to the income-level of the boys’ families, this enticing peep has an ‘æsthetic’ justification; we are, for the moment, in the upper-stratum of the Parisian bourgeoisie.
The mother of the boy inveigled decides to appease the photo-shop woman with a tongue-locking bribe: the restored cash, plus a make-sweet bonus-not too big (which would indicate desperation) and not too small (which would insult). A well-kept woman in the low-30s with cascading black hair, she has a strange aura of carnal secretiveness about her expression and gait, a discreet hint of something lewd in her features and feline tread-particularly in the set of her lips and her sly, downcast eyes: a slick and almost dirty lasciviousness, but of the confident kind that walks on air. (The only comparable thing I know is the shocking look of sexual repletion on Barbara Stanwyck’s face as her accomplice chokes out her screen-husband’s life, in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity .)
A very courtesan of persuasiveness, she will sugar the oily vulgarity of the bribe with a pretence of just restitution (the amount defrauded) and conscience-driven fairness (for your trouble!). She secretes goodies, this sleek intermediatrix-in her slimline pocketbook’s leather, in the slits where nest the source of all sweet things! The eponymous l’argent, reader.
From her readiness to trust her instincts face to face with the photo-shop woman, we infer a certain sort of social experience and knowledge: a Balzacian sort, which would be requisite here, along with the taste for it. If I am right in feeling that Bresson detests that taste and reviles that ambience-bourgeois to its bones-his choices here of what stops to pull out will be readily comprehended. (I too gag in Zacville.)
But the point of yoking together here one boy’s art-reproductions and the other boy’s mother is in the blackframing both: the fleshy Flemings and Watteauish nymphs in their black borders-and the mother, creamily cameoed in her rich black pelt, a smooth oval pearl of the kind that’s kept. Those black frames, perfectly credible in their separate contexts, can be seen as a kind of visual code, a linking cipher, for what these contexts have in common (besides money): a furtive, carnal and knowing air, one with a very bourgeois tendency to prop itself with high-level alibis and thinly-disguised lies; æsthetic appreciation in one case, equity and fair play in the other-‘necessary lies’ perhaps, in order to enjoy undisturbed one’s dirty little games and one’s animality; but in the long run fooling nobody, and least of all the liars.
Art turned into a tool; justice turned into a tool; outworn social ideals used as tools; even excuses used like tools-all alongside the one genuine tool titling the film, finding its sinuous way down social level after social level, until it hits the penurious bottom whence the lucre seeps no further but collects in the totality of its accumulated weight. Down there it is pure effect, and the effects, having no means of reply, are all bad. What strikes one particularly-and it is evidently what Bresson’s scenario was meant to bring out-is how this exchange utility, this mere mechanism, infects everything it crosses with its own premise; each translates itself into utility terms, each comes to represent something else quite alien to its original sense; self-sufficiency suffocates. All, finally, become dehumanized-abstract ‘humanisms’ being the most vulnerable and the first. It is entirely in tune to have begun L’Argent with the clicks and whirrs, with the slit, of an automated cash-vendor. And to end with the chill blackness at which the witnesses of the arrest appear to be staring: just what you would see if you could really get inside one of those slits.