Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBBB
/ , . , , . Screenplay by Robert Bresson, inspired by the novella Faux Billet by . Cinematography by , . Produced by , . Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .
Thirteen features in forty years is not a very prolific career for someone who had as high a profile as Robert Bresson did, but the effort required to appreciate his pensive, often disturbing investigations of the human soul certainly made them feel far more plentiful.
Made sixteen years before his death at the impressive age of 98, Bresson’s swan song is also where his style, storytelling and ruminations on life find themselves at their most potent, a skillfully spare and overwhelmingly powerful adaptation of Tolstoy’s posthumously published 1911 novella The Forged Coupon.
The film’s first act has us following a forged banknote for 500 francs that two teenagers pass at a photography shop before going back to their lives at their posh private school, and their homes with wealthy parents who ignore them. The shop owner () realizes the note is a fake after his co-manager ( ) accepts it, but hands it over to Yvon ( ) anyway, when the delivery man presents with the bill for the store’s heating oil.
Yvon uses the bank note at a café and is caught, then taken to court where the photography store owners get their assistant Lucien () to lie and say that he does not know Yvon and never saw him before. The accused is let off with a warning but loses his job, spiralling down into degradation when he accepts a gig as getaway driver for a bank robbery that lands him with a long sentence in prison.
Meanwhile, Lucien’s own soul has been tainted by his actions and he also walks out on his employers and takes the contents of their safe with them, eventually caught and brought to trial where he reveals his own philosophical feelings about his inspirations for his actions, before being sent to a prison cell next to the man he put there some time earlier.
There’s little dialogue and the soundtrack rarely rises above a hush from beginning to end, Bresson never lets the melodramatic contents of this explosive story ever feel like more than an intense prayer, whittling down the narrative elements to static but richly evocative shots that get a great deal of information across with minimal effort.
The judgment on a corrupted class system is unsparing in its bleakness and uncomplicated in its familiarity, the working class must suffer for the upper class wrongdoings that the bourgeoisie help facilitate, but Bresson is at a remove from the actions of his characters and does not present them in the spirit of condemnation.
Rather, it is the foolish modern notion that we don’t all need each other that is nagging at his conscience, there’s a circularity to the way one action leads to another that is not at all about morality but is a plea for us to respect continuity instead.
A powerful work from a master whose efforts don’t always go down smoothly, in fact a number of his films feel like homework, but who ends his impressive career on a very high, galvanizing note before receding into his own peace and quiet for almost two more decades.
The Criterion Collection: #886
Cannes Film Festival Award: Best Director (Robert Bresson)