L’Argent (1983) (Money)
Director: Robert Bresson
This ranks among the most pessimistic and unsettling movies I’ve ever seen. It’s a film about greed and its consequences, but it also has much to say about the deviance and irrationality that lurks just below the surface of modern life. Based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy, L’Argent was made by famed French director Robert Bresson when he was 81 years old. If you think that all directors mellow with age, think again. This film is an unsparingly grim vision of the human condition, one that viewers will have to decide for themselves whether to accept or reject. But if the purpose of a good film is to make the viewer think, then it must be said that Bresson succeeds brilliantly.
Loosely based on a Leo Tolstoy short story entitled The Forged Coupon, the plot sets up a classic chain-of-consequences scenario. In the opening shot, we see a schoolboy ask his father for his allowance. The father gives him some money, but the amount is not enough for the youth, who schemes with a friend to try to get more. The friend has an idea: why not pass off a fake 500 franc note? It seems like a low-risk proposition, so the two go to a photography shop and buy a token item, and receive a good amount of change in return. The store clerk has her suspicions, but does the deal anyway.
The store manager recognizes the bill as a fake; but instead of reporting it to the police and taking the financial loss, he decides to pass the fraudulent notes (he has more than one) on to some other unsuspecting victim, a man named Yvon. This he does, and the victim is one of those faceless blue-collar workers that make society run as it should. This man–a delivery driver for an oil company–eventually gets caught with the counterfeits. Arrested and charged, he is taken to court; he protests that he got the fakes from the photography shop, but a corrupt shop employee named Lucien denies ever having seen him. So the delivery driver takes the fall. He is barely able to muster any outrage in court; the delivery driver, like every other figure in this film, speaks in a dead-pan, monotone style that only seems to accentuate his lack of character.
But things are about to get much worse for Yvon. Too proud to apologize to his boss for his involvement in the whole affair, he is fired. To make ends meet, he takes to crime like a fish to water. Paralleling this descent into moral corruption, the store clerk who committed perjury in court (Lucien) begins to steal from his own bosses, eventually robbing the store safe. From here, the characters’ lives spiral out of control due to a mixture of bad choices, lack of moral courage, and circumstance. Just when the viewer thinks that something redeeming will happen, another circle of hell opens up. All of this misfortune and depravity culminate in a finale so excessive that it strains the viewer’s credulity. But perhaps this is the director’s point: to show us just how far even supposedly “decent” people can fall when presented with the right set of circumstances.
L’Argent was filmed in the early 1980s, but somehow feels like it’s decades older than this. The scenes are shot with no fanfare, but show great artistry and preparation. The actors speak and act as if they were sleep-walking through life with no moral compass. All in all, the picture presented of humanity here is a very bleak one: L’Argent envisions a universe of self-seeking, morally weak people who do only enough to get by, and no more. They never reflect on where their long-term interests might lie, preferring the short-term payoff every single time. This is a film of ideas, and on that basis one can see why it won the Director’s Prize at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival.
Yet I was troubled with the pessimistic outlook of L’Argent. Is it really true that people always are ruled by greed, pride, and moral relativism? Is there nothing at all redeeming in human interactions? This movie in some ways reminded me of the picture of humanity presented by the eighteenth century Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift: for Swift, man was a vicious beast whose stupidities and follies vastly outpaced his better virtues. For my part, I think we should allow one-half of what Jonathan Swift said about humanity. Is man often greedy, vicious, stupid, and unspeakably cruel? Yes, without doubt. But is he not also–just as often–capable of the noblest and most sublime good? Are not the crimes, follies, and inanities of life counterbalanced by the inspiring feats of selfless sacrifice, courage, charity, artistic brilliance, love, compassion, and benevolence that surround us every day? Does not our view of life depend on what we choose to see, and what we choose to focus on? Any weakling can be a pessimist; it takes strength, energy, and vision to be optimistic.
L’Argent is a brilliant philosophical examination of human behavior, but it is one that I must reject, when all is said and done. Bresson’s vision is far too dark. Man has within himself the seeds of both supreme evil and supreme good; which of these seeds he chooses to cultivate is up to him, and he himself wields this power. It is incumbent on every man to try to walk the path of virtue, no matter how difficult this may be. We must always remember, as Cicero has told us in On Duties, that no short-term gain of expediency can ever be morally good, and that choosing such a course will always carry with it negative consequences. It is not a matter of if a price will be paid, but only when.
The Cube (1997)
Director: Vincenzo Natali
I saw this movie last week without knowing anything about it, and it was a pleasant surprise. This is a low-budget psychological horror film with an ingenious premise: a handful of random people simply wake up to find themselves trapped in an intricate lattice of locked rooms. They eventually figure out that they are in a giant honeycomb of rooms that collectively make up an enormous cube. No explanation is offered for this surreal arrangement. None at all. Is it a government experiment? We do not know, and we never find out. We are just placed in a claustrophobic series of rooms and left to fend for ourselves. It turns out that the cube is immense, and that many of the rooms are booby-trapped with sadistic torture devices.
So this is the entire plot. You have a collection of rats trying to find out how to escape from a brutal three-dimensional maze. And yet the movie is very effective at maintaining its atmosphere of tension and repressed rage. We quickly find out that the real race in the film will be to see if the characters can escape before they turn on each other. The Cube is not perfect: the acting is what you would expect in a low-budget film, although it is not bad and does not detract from the film’s overall impact. Very much worth a look.