Marcel L'Herbier's L'Argent
is now universally regarded as one of the true great
masterpieces of the silent era of film, although this has not always been the case.
Up until the 1970s, the film was largely overlooked and it was only after its full restoration
in that decade that the film was accorded its current status as a major classic.
One reason for the film's comparative obscurity until recently was down to
poor reviews it received when it was first released and, more significantly, because of
some atrocious last-minute re-editing (which reduced the run-time of the film by over
30 minutes) before it was released. It is alleged that this editing was instigated
by a personal enemty of L'Herbier, Jean Sèphane, head of Cinéromans, in
an attempt to sabotage the film. In spite of this, the film fared quite well commercially,
particularly in Germany, although critics were divided as to its merit.
At a cost of nearly five million francs, L'Argent
was Marcel L'Herbier's most lavish
and greatest film. Based on a novel of the same name by Emile Zola, but updated
to contemporary France, the fillm makes an unveiled condemnation on the world of high
finance, particularly the sin of speculation, the thing L'Herbier hated above all
else. Thanks to its modern setting and simple story of greed and corruption, the
film is just as relevant today as it was in the late 1920s.
What is most striking about this film is the sheer scale and ambition of the work.
Not content to demonstrate his mastery of experimental camera techniques, L'Herbier applies
these on a scale that few film directors have ever dared. He creates a world of
imposing all-corrupting power by using enormous sets (including the real Paris Stock Exchange)
to portray the dehumanising and destructive effect of money on human beings. High-
and low-angle shots and dizzying camera movements reinforce our sense of a disorientated
world which no one can master, the world of high-risk speculation.
The scenes at the Paris Stock Exchange are particularly memorable, with traders reduced
to no more than senseless ants milling around, blindly following the latest speculative
trend. L'Herbier hired 1500 extras and over a dozen cameramen to shoot these
remarkable scenes during the three-day Pentacoste holiday. Subsequent scenes, such
as Saccard's evening party, draped sumptuously in art deco, also provide an important
visual record of the life of the rich elite in the late 1920s, a life of lavish excess
and empty pleasures.
Impressive as the sets and photography are, it is the film's characters which make L'Argent
so compelling and such an intense film. The greedy, manipulative Saccard makes
a brilliant villain, but magnificently played by Pierre Alcover, he also has a dangerously
sinister side, as well as a tragic dimension, making him much more than a conventional
villain. The other characters are also well-drawn and well-acted, particularly
the seductive vixen Baronin Sandorf and the vulnerable and easily corrupted Line Hamelin.
Jules Berry also appears in a fairly minor role: he would go on to become one of the leading
lights of French cinema in the 1930s.
To sum up, L'Argent
is indisputably one of the great masterpieces of the silent
age, a gripping, brilliantly constructed, hugely original piece of cinema. It deserves
to be ranked alongside such works as Abel Gance's Napoléon
(1927) and Carl Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc
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