The restoration of this hefty, propulsive, and preposterous 1928 film comes with an irresistible tag of relevance. The story—“inspired” by Emile Zola’s 1891 novel of the same name—concerns catastrophic financial malfeasance and corrupt stock-market maneuvering, played out alongside more intimate varieties of betrayal and deceit. The more startling fact is that L’Argent displays, in every shot and scene, the outsize talent of its writer-director, Marcel L’Herbier, whose reputation on English-speaking shores has been largely misplaced in the shadows of French film history.
The movie’s intricate plot links the fluctuating fortunes of Nicolas Saccard, rapacious owner of the Bank Universal, and his new partner and patsy, intrepid aviator Jacques Hamelin, with equal attention paid to Hamelin’s wife, Line. The latter functions first as a catalyst for the alliance, then as a compromised enabler when the banker’s scams soar out of control.
As incarnated by Pierre Alcover, a bulky, big-bellied presence, Saccard makes money the way Godzilla breathes fire. Grinning or glowering, he radiates the neediness, narcissism, and will to power of a supremely spoiled infant, and pretty much steals every scene in which he appears. Most of these feature one of two exceedingly alluring women: Marie Glory, as the aviator’s adorable, increasingly agitated wife, and Brigitte Helm (the snake-hipped robot temptress in Lang’s Metropolis) as Saccard’s soulless former mistress.
Mme. Hamelin insists she wants money for her husband’s sake—a bit of self-deceit that gets tested and heightened as the story streaks along. Hamelin is played by Henry Victor, a tall, earnest lunk with Frankensteinian stitching sewn into his left temple, the trace of an injury sustained in a plane crash in distant French Guiana. In time, presiding over oil fields on this sultry foreign turf, the pilot will don a pith helmet and an eye patch and stare at his blurry hand. He will also be visited by a Saccard accomplice played by Antonin Artaud, whose grooved cheeks and deep-set eyes project a world of morbid complicity lurking in the story’s background. (Alfred Abel, another Metropolis alum, appears as Saccard’s nemesis, a rival financier, and Lang’s Mabuse films seem to have offered L’Herbier a model for how these capitalists track and trade millions by means of weighted looks and brow-bulging telepathy.)
Melodrama trumps economic exegesis—is this a surprise?—as L’Herbier works valiantly to provide concrete visualizations for the fickle abstract movements by which international finance bestows great wealth or snatches it away. The camera glides and surges through enormous Art Deco sets, giving a sense of scope and consequence to hectic phone calls and transparent lies. Despite the vast spaces at his disposal, L’Herbier also goes for dynamically claustrophobic, low-angle close-ups—the sort of shots that might be anachronistically characterized as “Wellesian.” Another of the director’s favored strategies is to intercut glamorous and grotesque faces with wide overhead views of swarming antlike crowds. In one particularly compelling sequence, his camera swooping like Spider-Man, L’Herbier draws a direct equivalence between the launch of Saccard’s desperate financial scheme and the takeoff of Hamelin’s airplane, building to an incredible feeling of exhilaration and release.
In the Zola novel, Hamelin is a mere engineer. Filming less than a year after Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, L’Herbier cannily made him actively adventurous, airborne, a hero primed to fall. Otherwise, unlike the novel, the movie focuses exclusively on the high end of the social strata. In this giddy, decadent universe, L’Herbier seems to say, the pursuit of wealth is a collective fever dream from which no character wants to wake.
But for Saccard money is also a conspicuous sublimation, a substitute for love and sex. There’s an accompanying sense, at the heart of the story, of moral crisis, corruption, and ever-mounting hysteria—the expression of which falls to the level eyebrows and quivering pristine features of Marie Glory, who manages to be gloriously bland and erotic all at once. She’s ravishingly, defileably wholesome. Helm slithers through the proceedings wrapped in form-fitting reflective fabrics, but it’s Glory’s quick smile that provokes the movie’s most heated action. And so, after a wrenching, spasmodic groping session with the aviator’s wife, the rebuffed banker resorts to blunt blackmail. Trading a threat of financial ruin for an invitation to a party in her honor, Mme. Hamelin shows up at Chez Saccard—another palatial set, replete with marble steps, a spurting fountain, and a retinue of musicians and dancing girls. The little woman brings her little black pistol. The ensuing action, sandwiched between dizzy high-angle shots and shimmering double exposures, doesn’t quite cover the fact that the story has worked its way into a corner, landing, with perfunctory piety, in a crowded courtroom. And although a closing scene with Saccard caps the movie on a sardonic note, L’Herbier avoids deeper conclusions about his characters or the economic system they’ve nearly brought to collapse.
What does it say about the filmmaker, and his medium, that, despite this concluding tameness, L’Herbier’s compositions, lighting, and camera moves remain terrifically bold? It’s tempting to find further significance in the fact that the making of L’Argent ran two million francs over budget, qualifying it as the most expensive film ever produced in France up to that time. (It was also L’Herbier’s last silent picture. His filmography consists of some 40 titles, stretching into the Fifties, plus a run of documentaries produced for TV. He was a fundamental figure in the French film industry, and a prolific writer, authoring hundreds of theoretical texts and, in 1979, the year of his death, an autobiography—but nothing yet has been translated into English.)
Here’s hoping that the restoration of this epic leads to a closer and broader review of L’Herbier’s full career. In the meantime, I can’t help but hanker for Guy Maddin to shoot a fittingly deranged alternate ending for L’Argent, as G.B. Shaw once supplied a new last act for Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. The two women, Helm and Glory, would wind up in bed together, of course. The aviator, completely blind, would risk one last, brave, out-of-focus flight. And Saccard, left to his own devices, would start stuffing the Art Deco sets into his ravenous mouth before setting out, once again, to devour the world.
Michael Almereyda is a filmmaker currently working on a biopic about the experimental psychologist Stanley Milgram. He thanks Jonathan Rosenbaum for introducing him to L’Argent and for his sharing his thoughts.