L’argent – The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

Money serves as a symbol of success and has said to be the root of all evil. It is also fittingly the meaning of the French term L’argent, which happens to be the title of writer/director Robert Bresson’s final film. L’argent captures Bresson’s minimalist style, as it tells the tale of how one counterfeit bill affects the lives of many. Now a part of The Criterion Collection, plenty can now see just how well this film holds up. The film won the Director’s Prize at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival and showed just what kind of cinematic power can come from presenting life as it is in this dramatic feature that takes characters down a sorrowful hole mostly met with despair.




Things are unsurprisingly bleak in this movie, as the story was loosely inspired by the first part of Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Forged Coupon. Tolstoy may have been one of the greatest authors of all time, but that doesn’t take away from how much doom and gloom can be found in his work. This adaptation is no different, as L’argent begins with a seemingly harmless prank. To pay off a debt, a school boy gets help from a friend who provides a counterfeit 500-franc note to use.  It is exchanged at a local shop and changes hands once again. Only a few exchanges of the note occur before the fraudulent bill is revealed for what it is. Unfortunately, it has repercussions that profoundly affect the unlucky person who attempts to return it.

Bresson’s filmmaking never leaned on a level of flashiness that could be discerned through overt uses of the camera. Instead, through many static shots, minimal movement and a deliberate choice to have characters provide an internal focus on the screen, it was up to the audience to take in a lot of what was being shown on screen. That is particularly effective with L’argent, as the use of the counterfeit bill means switching perspectives several times during the film. It is a creative way to pull off this movie, as it says Bresson is not specifically making a movie that judges these characters. Instead, we are observing them in their environment and taking in what we can.

Understandably, various recurring themes that have helped provide context for Bresson’s other films can be found here. Despite the sort of attitude on display by some of the characters, one can find a seeking of redemption here, which is fitting, given how the film plays out. That said, it is almost as if Bresson was making a different sort of a point, given how unsentimental L’argent appears to be in its style. With a lack of score, beyond diegetic sounds, and an abrupt shift in tones (particularly towards the end), there may be characters you want to stand behind, but the film finds interesting ways to subvert certain expectations due to its filmmaking choices.

I have read that Bresson was incredibly satisfied by how L’argent turned out, but I can’t help but see one major flaw with the film. While not an unheard of act, Bresson chose inexperienced actors to play the various roles. It fits the sort of randomness that comes from telling a story of people connected by one element, but it also diminishes the overall quality. While the film may not seek to be overly emotional in its matter-of-fact presentation, it is hard for me to look past some of the blankness found on the faces of various performers. It does not render the film from being effective, but there is an element lacking, which may have played better for me with one or two stronger actors in the major roles.

Of course, I’m merely commenting on my first watch of a film considered a masterpiece by many and I, in no way, feel like I’m taking away from its legacy. Bresson’s cinematic choices have been highly influential, and there is plenty to admire in how L’argent is structured and designed as far as the emotional takeaway from the experience. Fortunately, the film is hardly a chore to watch, as it is quite exciting to see the turns it makes in putting out this experience. I’ll be happy to take in future viewings of L’argent, as the camera manages to communicate so much and when it doesn’t, there’s cleverness to other approaches for what the film wants to get across.


Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1

Clarity/Detail: This new 2K restoration was created by taking a 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative, with the support and approval of those with a say in one of France’s great films. The results are pretty great. There is something about how a movie like this from the 80s may not ultimately translate as well as some of the spectacular black and white movies I have seen restored recently, but the level of detail can be impressive here.

Depth: Similarly, the level of depth is impressive, given the sharp display of the film.

Black Levels: I have more to say about this regarding the color reproduction, but the color balance has a way of allowing for some improper issues that lead to light crushing when it comes to the black levels. It’s minor but does hold this presentation back from being outstanding.

Color Reproduction: Because of the film’s deliberate style, there is a lack of overwhelming colors to be found here, which holds the film back from feeling more dynamic in this department. The colors are stable but feel a bit washed out based on the naturalness of the filmmaking.

Flesh Tones: Facial textures are great. Plenty of detail can be found in the characters we meet.

Noise/Artifacts: This film has been cleaned up, with no traces of scratches, lines or any other distortion.


Audio Format(s): French LPCM 1.0

Subtitles: English

Dynamics: As mentioned, there is no score for this film, but that just means getting a fantastic read on everything else going on here. The use of auditory elements plays incredibly well as far as hearing organic sounds, depth of the scene based on where everyone is and what actions are taking place, along with a general great feel for the atmosphere.

Low-Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: You can hear all the discussions clearly.


There are only a few extras to be found on this disc, which is a shame, as I would have enjoyed hearing what a film historian or even an acclaimed director would have had to say in a commentary track.

Features Include:

  • 1983 Cannes Film Festival Press Conference (HD, 31:00) – Bresson and the cast speak about the making of the film, ideas being presented and more. A good look from people closest to it. Presented in French with subtitles.
  • L’argent, A to Z (HD, 51:00) – A video essay written and narrated by film scholar James Quandt, which examines Bresson’s style and working methods, along with the movie and the Tolstoy novel that inspired it.
  • Trailer (HD, 1:00)
  • PLUS – An essay by critic Adrian Martin and a 1983 interview with Bresson by critic Michel Ciment



L’argent was another cinematic joy to take in, courtesy of The Criterion Collection. It’s the sort of film that has kept me thinking and has had me re-examine some of my thoughts on films inspired by it and Bresson in general. The Blu-ray does plenty of justice in the movie’s presentation, with a solid video transfer and fantastic French audio track. The extras are minimal (fitting for Bresson), but add plenty to supplement the feature. Make this purchase if your collection is in need of the masterful work of a French auteur.


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