L’Argent is glitz, but not all glamour

MATTHEW HOUSIAUX

mjhousiaux12@ole.augie.edu

 

In the movies, the Jazz age is often depicted as the acme of Western optimism – a period

when coffers and champagne glasses runneth over and carefree effervescence blinded the world

to an impending financial crisis. The number of buoyant fantasies that Hollywood uncorked during

this time – Clara Bow’s coming-out-party, It and F.W. Murnau’s urban pastoral, Sunrise, to name

two – makes suggesting otherwise difficult.

Not every filmmaker, however, was blinkered to what lay ahead. Indeed, L’Argent (1928),

Marcel L’Herbier’s blistering indictment of Roaring Twenties rapaciousness, foreshadows the

1929 global stock market crash with uncanny prescience and more than a bit of eschatological

dread.

Adapted from a famous tract by French realist Emile Zola, L’Argent is often as literal-
minded as its title suggest (l’argent is French for “money”). The story hones in on the excess

speculation and insouciant amorality of two titans of world capital. Saccard (Pierre Alcover), a

corpulent French financier, finds himself hamstrung when his cunning German rival (Alfred Abel)

purchases almost all the controlling stock in his bank.

To revive his fortunes, Saccard invests in an oil-drilling enterprise in French Guyana. As

stocks soar, he names a dashing, Charles Lindbergh-esque aviator (Henry Victor) as his vice

president and agrees to fund the pilot’s perilous transatlantic flight as a publicity stunt.

Everyone harbors ulterior motives. Saccard makes for a heady anti-hero, his extravagant

bluster and resplendent girth belying the pathetic petulance of a child. The film’s object of desire

is not the money, but the aviator’s gorgeous wife (Mary Glory), whose character swings wildly

between avaricious femme fatale and dainty damsel in distress. Like in an F. Scott Fitzgerald

story, the mad scramble for wealth is revealed to be nothing but a displaced yearning for

unrequited love.

L’Herbier’s renown did not transcend his heyday. Early in his career, he was one of the

greatest innovators of the French film industry, first introducing his dexterous cinematographic

techniques in the sumptuous avant-garde melodrama El Dorado (1928).

In L’Argent, the camera stalks through the columnated concourses of financial institutions

and pans past throngs of eager shareholders clambering outside the Bourse as if the whole of

civilization was collapsing around them.  In the film’s most alarming scene, the director simulates

an attempted rape with a frenetic montage.

The mise en scene is accordingly lavish. L’Herbier’s best set piece is an immaculately

staged soiree, set in the courtyard of a capacious deco mansion. The Paris jet set enjoys

its privileges; glittering chorines and tuxedoed tap dancers cavort over the inky abyss of an

ornamental fountain; and, as two jaded vamps confabulate in the powder room, the dominoes of

the plot – and the French financial sector –begin to fall.

However remarkable, L’Argent is, at times, also as laughably profligate as the individuals

whose actions it critiques. The denouement, a slice of overwrought courtroom drama, is

announced by the presiding judge as no less than “the trial of money itself.”

Creative decadence is endemic. Like Federico Fellini, another auteur with a flair for

balletic visuals, L’Herbier is essentially a profound chauvinist–denigrating of women, fond of

fascist spectacle and enticed by exotic third-worldism. His ability to orchestrate onscreen reality

gave his films their singular, eye-catching appeal.

Nevertheless, L’Argent does succeed at channeling the temper of its era. The

unrestrained giddiness of L’Herbier’s filmmaking meshes well with the cultural angst percolating

within its depiction of capitalism run amok. The film seems to be as much a response to

Hollywood grandiosity as to real socioeconomic conditions in France.

While the world was languishing through the Great Depression, conditions in France

were comparatively palmy; because the country had lost so many men during the preceding

World War, it never encountered the same widespread unemployment and resulting anomie that

plagued the United States.

Indeed, the most venerated character in L’Argent is the heroic aviator, whose death is

faked (in a fiery plane crash, no less) by Saccard as a ploy for press coverage. What ultimately

haunts L’Argent is this wartime specter of young men struck down their prime. Meanwhile, on the

homefront, corporate fat cats pad their pockets on the atrocity – and steal all the women, while

they are at it.