L'Argent (1928)



L'Argent photo
Nicolas Saccard and Alphonse Gunderman are two business rivals who are locked in a bitter feud. Whilst Saccard is a ruthless speculator, Gunderman is more cautious and honest, and it is the latter who is more successful. Having nearly been ruined by his rival, Saccard attempts to raise new capital for his company, La Banque Universale. In a desperate bid to reverse his fortunes, Saccard appoints the celebrated aviator Jacques Hamelin as his vice-president and sends him off to Guyana to drill for oil. With Hamelin out of the way, Saccard attempts to seduce his wife, but he succeeds only in making another dangerous enemy. Despite his best attempts, Saccard's fraudulent schemes merely hasten his downfall...
© filmsdefrance.com 2012

Film Review

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.
Film pic 1
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.

Film pic 2
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.

Film pic 3
Impressive as the sets and photography are, it is the film's characters which make L'Argentso 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 (1928).
The above article was written for filmsdefrance.com and should not be reproduced in any medium without the author's permission.


The director Marcel L'Herbier also worked with the actor Marie Glory on the film Terra di fuoco (1939).

Film Credits

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