Fans of longtime French avant-garde filmmaker Robert Bresson can finally see his 13th and most recent film, "L'Argent," which premiered at the New York Film Festival almost two years ago. Bresson's indictment of materialism ("l'argent" means "money") will play for three days at the Biograph as part of its French film festival.
The story of "L'Argent" has a crude, Dreiseresque inevitability. Counterfeit bills flood Paris; when a delivery boy, Yvon (Christian Patey), unknowingly accepts one and uses it in a cafe, he's arrested. Money, for Bresson, is a contagion -- Yvon loses job, wife and freedom. "Money, visible god," bemoans one character. "What would you not make us do?" Ultimately, Yvon purges his despair in an ax-wielding blood bath.
This kind of critique of materialism is familiar stuff, but Bresson tells his story with dazzling economy. Most of the action takes place off-camera; Bresson's camera fixes on gestures, brief close-ups or the repeated motif of opening and closing doors. A murder, for example, is revealed when the water in a basin runs red while the killer washes his hands. Bresson is interested in the ordinary, while the extraordinary comes in asides.
Unfortunately, in "L'Argent" Bresson sticks to his practice of using nonactors, or "models," for even the principal roles. In the context of such a naturalistic plot, they just seem like life-size chessmen moved arbitrarily from square to square. Bresson uses nonactors because he claims they surprise him, but there are no surprises here -- they're just wooden.
"L'Argent" isn't involving -- it has an intellectualized distance. Its pleasures are the classic pleasures of the art film -- niceties of technique, juxtapositions of image and sound, a judiciousness in choosing what is shown, and what isn't. In Bresson's pessimistic universe, film alone is transcendent. L'Argent, at the Biograph through Sunday, is unrated and contains some violence.