Money Close Ups: Bela Balazs, Robert Bresson and L’Argent

It is a truism — or at least a provocative cliché — that God is in the details; and according to renowned culture critic, filmmaker and proto-cine-theorist Bela Balazs this idea is especially true in cinema. In his august essays, The Close Up (1930) and The Face of Man (1929), Balazs posits that cinemas ability to view life in close-up gives it the potential to reveal facets of every day existence that lie hidden from the human eye and subsequently reveal their infinite complexity–allowing the audience to see everyday existence in a new light. In The Human Face (1934), he outlines the possibility for the close-up to capture the fleeting, ephemeral qualities of the face (slanted smile, eyelash flutter, nostril flare etc.) and embalm them in celluloid. Thus for Balazs, this new light offered by cinema is a transcendental, spiritual one. In these essays Balazs espouses what is essentially a metaphysical reading of the cinema as a whole, with the close-up as his beatified tour guide through that  celestial treasure house of human features and behaviors called the movies.

The key notion in Balazs’s conception of the close-up is that, when properly and poetically utilized by the director, it allows the viewer to see the world in a new, heretofore undiscovered way, because it can focus their attention on tiny details that can not be seen, or go unnoticed, in daily life. Because the particulars of the cinematic experience — the two dimensionality of the movie screen, the audiences fixed position in the theater and the distinct focal clarity possible with the camera lens — go against the particulars human visual perception — rapid eye movement, blinking, multiple and constantly shifting focal perspectives, and physical movement in general — there is inherent within the cinema the possibility for the “camera to uncover the cell-life…in which all great events are ultimately conceived.” Therefore, by isolating specific objects and minute pockets of life in carefully articulated close-ups cinema can visualize that every grand, momentous event is, in fact, a symphonic accumulation of minute details. For Balazs the close-up transforms the general into the particular and, thus, it is possible for a director to express his own poetic / artistic sensibility and overall world-view through his precisely modulated use of close-ups, specifically by exploiting what Balazs views as their “lyrical charm”. Indeed, in Balazs’s view, the mark of great director is one who can uncover through the close-up “the world that exists beyond appearances” a world that lies in the soul of man, a world of transcendence.   

It is in The Face of Man where Balazs’s metaphysical conception of the close-up, and cinema as whole, becomes fully apparent. Balazs posits that close-ups of objects only have meaning because of the “human connection” that is apparent in the cinematic space that surrounds them. So that the meaning subscribed to objects or limbs in close-up is only present because of the human emotion that is attached to them. Following this logic, Balazs outlines that the greatest meaning and emotion in cinema exists apart from the world of objects, “in a new dimension,” that lies within the expressive qualities of the human face. He sees the movie camera as specially attuned to picking up the infinite complexity and boundless emotional expressiveness that can exist on the topography of the face, which he calls “the polyphonic play of features”. Since the close-up can uncover minute details generally hidden from the eye, when its focused on the “microphysiognomy” (265) of the human face it can reveal, in Balazs’s view, “strange new dimension of the soul” (265) Here, Balazs is espousing a transcendental reading of the cinema and is using the ineffable power of the close-up to purport what is, essentially, his own spirtualized world-view. His language throughout the piece that is adorned with blowzy metaphysical trappings, to articulate the great emotional power that can reside in a simple close-up. While this quasi-religious perspective may be questionable to some (to me) it is nonetheless forcefully expressed, and Balazs’s metaphysical notions of the close-up take on provocative new meanings in the obscure, sui generis cinematic approach of Robert Bresson and his 1983 film L’Argent.

The Bressonian method — a winnowing away of all dramatic / cinematic excess and artificiality — reached its apotheosis in L’Argent, which is undoubtedly the directors most streamlined and concise effort. The subject of L’Argent is the pervasive corrupting force money has in the modern world. The basic plot tracks — with a ruthless speed and logic — how one forged bank note can instigate a relentless downward spiral that causes a young man (Yvon) to go to jail, lose his family and eventually devolve (or evolve?) into an axe murderer. This bizarre and brutal succession of events is made sensical and meaningful through Bresson’s carefully delineated close-ups. The entire film seems to compartmentalize existence into a series of minute, controlled, almost autonomous gestures (i.e. money changing hands, doors being opened and closed; the clipped movements of arms and legs in general). Actions are performed with a clinical dispassion by Bresson’s actors and he shoots these actions in precise close-ups and pans and tilts from object to limb to object and back, through a set of confined spaces like a photo mat or a jail cell. The characters rarely speak , and when they do, it is with terse inexpressive language that betrays not a whisper of emotion. In this way Bresson can be viewed as a cinematic miniaturist who most expresses his poetic sensibility through his close-ups, which fits Balazs’s model to a tee.


Notice, if you will, the telling absence of the facial close-up in this crucial scene.

Indeed, every event in the film is shot in such a way as too thwart conventional expectation and uncover new associations between people and their surroundings. When a woman is slapped in the face, Bresson cuts away from the action to a close-up of a coffee cup spilling. More outrageously, when Yvon brutally murders a sleeping family Bresson focus’s his camera away from the violence and onto a dog nervously scurrying around the scene. In these, and many other instances, Bresson carefully places the viewers attention away from the inherent drama of the situation and onto the isolated objects that make it up, to articulate the ways in which these simple actions and gestures embody, shape and mold all of life’s drama, and ultimately have profound implications. This is a central conception of Balazs’s theory. By focusing us so acutely to the to tiny minutiae that makes up the fabric of quotidian existence Bresson allows us “to see the everyday in a new light” and discover the momentous in the infinitesimal.

Yet, a key to Bresson’s approach in L’Argent, is a reduction of facial expression and eradication of outward emotion in his actors, whom he tellingly refers to as “models”. Despite the increasingly wild events that occur in the film (forgery, blackmail, multiple-homicide-by-rusty-axe) the characters show little outward reaction and seem to wander through the film like bizarre somnambulist robots. This, seemingly, runs contrary to Balazs romantic view of the human face and its ability to convey the mysteries of existence. Indeed, their isn’t one facial close-up (a shot where it just the head and neck in frame) in L’Argent and Bresson’s willful suppression of human emotion — a denial of Balazs’s “polyphonic play of features” — in the context of some particularly horrendous events, seems to be a conscious effort by the director to convey a harshly pessimistic world-view — one that surely does not fit with Balazs’s starry-eyed transcendentalism. However, Bresson’s calculated avoidance of the facial close-up in L’Argent takes on much greater importance (and makes much greater sense in relation to Balazs) when placed alongside his most widely renowned film Pickpocket.

Classic pickpocketing sequence in Pickpocket. Ah, you don’t even need to understand French to be impressed by the streamlined beauty of the of the filmmaking.

It can be argued that is in this film where the Bressonian method emmerged fully formed, with its complex thievery scenes shot in precise close-ups of hands funneling through purses and wallet’s being fleetly passed around by a cadre of pickpockets. Yet at the end of Pickpocket (1959), Bresson indulges in a pair of long, anguished medium close-ups of the two main characters faces through prison glass, as they wordlessly acknowledge their love for one another; achieving a certain grace and spiritual redemption, thus conforming with Balasz notions of the transcendental power of the silent facial close-up. However, the Bresson of L’Argent proffers no transcendence for his characters (or the viewer) and our last glimpse of Yvon is in long shot, as he sullenly eat dinner in a cafe — directly after committing theft and murder — waiting for the police to arrive. Clearly, Bresson is implying that the world he has created in L’Argent is cold, bluntly materialistic and ultimately godless. Yet, he arrives at this brutally atheistic world-view by modifying Pickpocket’s narrative trajectory towards redemption in one key respect; by denying the final emotional catharsis that can be provided by a face shot in close-up. So in this odd, roundabout way, the striking absence of facial close-ups in L’Argent goes a great distance confirming Bresson’s belief in their transcendental power.

 

Bela Balazs in his essays The Close-Up and The Face of Man extolls the primacy of the close-up in cinema’s importance as a medium by describing their metaphysical, spiritual possibilities. Balazs views the close-up as an opportunity to see the world in a new light, by focusing on the small details that make up large events, particularly when expressed on the human face. His theory takes on new, provocative meanings when viewed through the perspective of Robert Bresson’s ruthlessly pessimistic L’Argent. Bresson’s precise, miniaturist cinematic approach frames life in a rapid succession of crystalline tactile close-ups, that in their originality, go far in visualizing Balazs’s claims. Yet, Bresson’s seeming denial of Balazs’s romantic view of the human face and his refusal to take L’Argent to Balazs’s transcendental dimension — a dimension Bresson thoroughly explored in Pickpocket — does as much to affirm his belief in its existence. Therefore, Balazs’s romantic, metaphysical take on the close up is, in an odd way, reinforced in Bresson’s most materialist and atheistic film. For Bresson sees the transcendental possibilities of the close-up and the expressive qualities of the human face and attempts to snuff them out in what can be considered his darkest night of the soul, L’Argent.

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