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
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
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.