The lives of shop assistant Lucien and delivery man Yvon are plunged into a downward spiral when two youths foist a forged 500 franc note on an equally duplicitous photographer (Baussy).
First drafted in 1977, Robert Bresson's 11th and final feature was based on Leo Tolstoy's novella
The False Note'. He later described it as the filmwith which I am most satisfied - or at least it is the one where I found the most surprises when it was complete - things I had not expected'. Yet, to the casual viewer, there's a daunting inevitability about this almost Victorian morality tale in which a childish prank leads to mass murder.
Ostensibly, it's an indictment of the materialism and amorality of modern life, in which Bresson demonstrates both how cash has replaced conscience and emotion as humanity's stock currency and the ease with which wealth contaminates the soul of everyone seduced by its false promises. But by stripping down the characters to their bare essentials (and frequently presenting them in isolation to emphasise their detachment from society), Bresson makes them difficult to empathise with. Yet, they're also hard to judge, as Bresson challenges us to consider how we would act when tempted in similar circumstances. However, for all its moral rigour and fixation with predestination (which prompted many critics to accuse Bresson of Jansenism), the film is still able to offer a glimpse of drastic redemption, as Yvon confesses to his second slaughter in the final frames. Although they hailed from different Christian traditions, cinematically Bresson is the heir of Carl Theodor Dreyer, both in his minimalism, devotion to detail and his fascination with the extent to which human actions are the result of either our own flawed natures or the intervention or absence of a divine power. Consequently, this demanding picture is less a study of corrupted innocence than a bid to understand why someone would sin when they had the choice to do otherwise. It's a theme that becomes increasingly prescient as consumerism's grip grows tighter.
Compelling morality tale that works on multiple layers.