Kent Jones,
BFI Publishing, 1999.
ISBN 0 85170 733 5

(Review copy supplied by Peribo: Distributors of Fine Books)
Uploaded 1 March 2001

“The fact that Bresson’s long life had more or less begun and ended with ‘the century of cinema’ seemed right, as natural as the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon. But then, only a little while ago, it suddenly hit me: we no longer have Bresson’s mind and body in this world of ours, working harder to make sense of it than anyone else who has ever stood behind a camera.” (Kent Jones – Cahiers Bresson Tribute[1] )

The BFI books dedicated to the study of Film Classics and Modern Classics continue to grow in number and quality. As studies of individual films nominated to the pantheon of cinema classics, they are distinguished by their pleasurably lengthy analyses and the calibre of the writers that they have attracted. L’argent by Kent Jones is one of the best books in this series. It takes pride of place next to other remarkable contributions including Adrian Martin’s Once Upon a Time in America, Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Dead Man, V. F. Perkins’ The Magnificent Ambersons, Camille Paglia’s The Birds, and Salman Rushdie’s The Wizard of Oz.

Kent Jones is one of the finest writers on film today. He has enlivened the pages of Film Comment, Cahiers du cinema and Artforum with his passionate, polemical and illuminating analyses. He has penned countless reviews of individual films as well as some astute and provocative writing about the state of the cinema today. But his best essays, by far, are his penetrating studies of the work of filmmakers as diverse as Olivier Assayas, Abel Ferrara, Wong Kar-Wai, John Carpenter, Hou-Hsiao-hsien, the Coen Brothers, Spike Lee, Andre Techine, and the Farrelly Brothers. I know of few writers who get to the very heart of a director’s work in the precise, tangible and tactile way that Jones does. With this long-awaited book-length study, he turns his attention to Robert Bresson and his last film L’argent.

This is a book written by someone in love with the cinema and with the films of Robert Bresson. In this sense it is a lover’s discourse. It is clear from the very start that Jones regards Bresson as one of the greatest filmmakers of the first century of cinema. He makes a number of pointed comparisons with other great artists – Mondrian, Webern, Cassavetes, Matisse, Cezanne, Welles, Griffith, to name just a few. But he also recognises that for many people Bresson’s films are challenging, difficult and enigmatic. They are films that have provoked quite different, even contradictory, reactions that only deepen the enigma that surrounds this filmmaker.

Jones begins his study of L’argent by surveying some of these contradictory positions. The differences are instructive. While some writers such as David Thomson approach Bresson with ‘unbounded awe’. Others such as Pauline Kael, describe him as a filmmaker ‘whose career went into decline after the making of Pickpocket’ – a filmmaker best characterised by terms such as ‘austere’, ‘severe’ and ‘ascetic’, while Paul Schrader described Bresson as a ‘transcendental artist’. In opposition to this idea of ‘transcendence’ critics such as Jonathan Rosenbaum argued that Bresson was not a religious artist at all, but an artist of ‘immanence…where the inside is always revealed by remaining on the outside’ [2] an artist whose style has ‘grown.. out of a concrete and material historical experience’ [3]  Yet others respond solely to the formal elements, regarding Bresson as a grand stylist whose cinema is about the very essence and purity of cinematic language.

While Jones claims that there is some utility in these approaches, he proposes a somewhat different way of looking at Bresson, in which one is alive and open to the experience of the work, to its’aesthetic excitement and sensual impact’. Through a writing style which poetically mirrors this same ‘aesthetic excitement’ and ‘sensual impact’, Jones sets out to reveal that L’argent is, in fact, a film about ‘a way of seeing – of genuinely responding to what’s there’, about ‘the intensity of perception’, and about ‘something utterly singular in cinema: an intimate record of contact with the world, recreated and transmuted into narrative’ (19) As Bresson himself said: “Increasingly what I am after – and with L’argent it became almost a working method – is to communicate the impressions I feel.”(16)

Jones’s close detailed analysis of L’argent illustrates this idea of felt impressions. It is organised into three sections. The first is a study of the source story – the Tolstoy novella The Forged Coupon – and an analysis of the ways in which Bresson’s film stays true to and diverges from its source. The second is a close analysis of the main body of the film – a chronological unfolding. And the third is a detailed study of the last 23 minutes of the film – a segment which Jones claims is one of the most sublime, ‘psychologically acute’ segments in all of Bresson’s cinema. As his analysis proceeds, Jones delights in showing that L’argent is more than an adaptation of a Tolstoy novella, a film about money, and an investigation into ‘the way evil spreads’. Instead he reveals a film which is about the world in which these things happen – a film about the sensual, tactile, materiality of objects in the world and the human experience of them. These felt impressions include the ‘surprise of cold, steel’ cash machines, the ‘hard, snaking sound of a recoiling hose’, the ‘omnipresent buzz of traffic’, people walking down the Grands Boulevard, the tall metal gates of a prison opening, wine glasses breaking, clothespins clicking on the line, arms pressing down on a pitchfork and tongs cutting through packed soil.

Jones’s writing can be seen to follow in the tradition of the great ‘textual’ writers – Manny Farber, for whom the ‘very feel of the world’ has always been a critical principle, Raymond Durgnat, Raymond Bellour, Serge Daney. Like these other great writers he has a precise and particular sense of a filmmaker’s work, a sharp alive-ness to the sonic, visual and material elements of a film and he always keeps the film itself present and in the foreground. There are few writers who give me such a tangible sense of the work as Jones does when he describes Bresson’s ‘sonic dissolves’, the flattened image attributed to his singular use of the 50 mm lens, and his tendency never to shoot frontally apart from faces in close-up. He burrows deep into the film and gets to the very heart of the way it works, the way it communicates its affects. Take this example where he discusses Bresson’s visual style, and links it to ideas about rhythm:

“Visually, on a shot-by-shot basis, Bresson likes to imprint a singularized action on a given space, like a charcoal link on a blank sheet of paper. The body is either traced in its stillness, or draws itself across the streets in a quick, decisive movement. When one discusses ‘rhythm’ in Bresson, it’s closer to the idea of rhythm in painting, much more than a question of ‘pace’ the actual rhythm of action, as in a film by Scorsese or Coppola, or of shot length, as in Antonioni” (37-38)

What we get is a suggestive image of the filmmaker as an artist painting his celluloid canvas. What we also get is a precise and poetic evocation of Bresson’s compositional choices, his working methods and his difference from practitioners such as Scorsese, Coppola and Antonioni. Jones uses his broad, eclectic and quite extraordinary sense of the cinema to make telling comparisons with the work of others, as in this painterly description of the final goodbye between Yvon and Elise:

“Bresson cross-cuts between Yvon and the silent Elise, keeping both heads carefully in the frame, separated by the plastic partition. These are among the most beautiful shots in the film, in which Patey’s and Lang’s faces take on an heiratic effect – Patey’s smooth, fine-boned features could have been painted by Cranach, while Lang has a gorgeous fullness to her face and a dark lustre that’s right out of the Venetian school.” (63)

This moment of parting is one of the most deeply affecting scenes in the film. Jones’s description goes someway towards explaining something about its beautiful sadness and the particular figural affects of these faces at this moment. It is part of the book’s more extensive close and detailed attention to performance, to faces, bodies, hands, feet and gestures, the distances and spaces between people, the sites of separation.

Disputing a commonly repeated claim about the ‘lack of acting’ in Bresson [4] [4], Jones puts forward as an example the taut performances of the measured, middle-class ’emotionally even’ family at the beginning of the film, living in ‘cold luxury’ and setting the money chain in motion. But he leaves his most deeply felt, clearly observed, evocatively poetic description for the unnamed woman at the end of the story: her silent struggles, her ‘delicate, tiny features’, her ‘flat smoothness’, her ‘thin white legs’, her unloving family and the inexplicable sense that she is asking to be murdered. Her past, her present, her future so aptly and emotionally portrayed.

There is a timeliness in the arrival of this book, as if Jones is not only reflecting on Bresson’s remarkable achievements, but also rescuing Bresson from a potentially aloof, remote and distant throne, where he is only revered and admired by a small brood of cinephiles. One of the great achievements of this book is that Jones not only makes a case for Bresson’s sensitivity to his own cultural moment, but he also shows Bresson’s particular relevance to a contemporary culture and a new cinematic century. He sites L’argent within the genre of serial killer films and argues that Bresson’s non-judgemental portrayal of Yvon and the circumstances of his evil acts – the separation of evil from reality – make this a far more profound film than others in this genre. In a reflective postscript Jones goes even further by linking the shocking nature of the murders in L’argent to the equally incomprehensible Columbine school killings – and imagines how Bresson might have helped us understand these murders and these boys,’their loneliness, their isolation and the monstrous popular culture that surrounds them'(91) Poignantly, however, Jones concludes by saying that this would be asking too much from a filmmaker who has given us so much already.

This book is essential reading for those interested in the cinema of Robert Bresson [5] . It is also a great work of film criticism.

Anna Dzenis


[1] “Robert Bresson” Cahiers du Cinema (hors-serie) January 2000
[2] Jonathan Rosenbaum, “The rattle of armor, the softness of flesh: Bressson’s Lancelot du Lac. ” Movies as Politics. P.202. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1997.
[3] Ibid. op.cit P. 5.
[4] See also Murray Smith’s Engaging Characters; Fiction, Emotion and the Cinema (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) for its detailed analysis of acting styles in L’argent. Murray writes “The inexpressivity of Bresson’s characters has been somewhat overstated (…) Rather than characterizing performance as ‘flat’, as a total absence of inflection on the part of actors, it is better described as operating within a compressed amplitude.” (197)
[5] Other great studies of L’argent include Rachel O. Moore’s fascinating chapter “Bresson’s Phantasmagoria” in Savage Theory: Cinema as Modern Magic. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000. Pp. 107.120 and Philippe Arnaud, “Refractaires” in Cinematheque 3 (Spring/Summer 1993) 20-26.

About the Author

Anna Dzenis

About the Author

Anna Dzenis

Anna Dzenis is a Screen Studies lecturer and researcher who has taught at La Trobe University, Victorian College of the Arts and RMIT. She teaches screen literacy, screen criticism, world cinema, film history and theories of visuality. She is a scholar of photography and cinema and brings these two disciplines together in her teaching and research. She is co-editor of the online journal Screening the Past, and has published essays in Senses of Cinema, Screening the Past, Lola, Real Time, Metro, The Conversation, 24 Frames: Australia and New Zealand, The Oxford Companion to Australian Film, and The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Films.View all posts by Anna Dzenis →