L'Argent (1928) Poster


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The camera as the calligrapher's brush
chaos-rampant23 September 2011
It does not matter that this is adapted from Zola, and generally received then and now as a prestigious release that should be accorded a place in history. It matters because it's one of the most striking films in the transition towards a cinema that does not merely chronicle life, whose primary means of expression is no longer drama and does not aspire to emotion, but instead sculpts from space and uses the camera as a calligrapher would a brush.

There is a match-cut from the engine of a plane to a madly spinning camera looking down from a ceiling that is perhaps the most impressive in the entire 30 years of cinema until then. And there is a lot of the camera choreographed to dance, or painting with our gaze incomplete motions across rooms.

Resnais would take all this thirty years later to revitalize French cinema.

Story-wise, it is about two puppet-masters vying for the control of the same world. The film begins on the level of the stage, the stockmarket, this new temple of the modern world devoted to capital, and pulls back to reveal who holds the strings, who re-invents the broadcasted reality.

Like Zen calligraphy, this is not about the painted signs on the scroll and what they mean, but the disciplined soul revealed by the flow of ink. Watch it like you would unfold a scroll, the ink is in the image.
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L 'Argent synthesised social realism and elaborate mise-en-scene
Ziggy544613 October 2008
Near the end of the silent cinema period, at opposite ends of Europe, two films were being planned on the subject of money or capital: Sergei M. Eisenstein's project for a film based on Karl Marx's Capital, and Marcel L'Herbier's film adaptation of Emile Zola's L'Argent. Eisenstein's project, unfortunately, never got beyond the preliminary stage of diary notes, recorded discussions with G.V. Alexandrov, and the rough outline of a scenario. L'Herbier's project, of course, was completed and released as L'Argent, in the midst of controversy, critical condemnation as well as acclaim, and uncertain commercial success, at least in France.

Undoubtedly influenced by Abel Gance's experiments with camera mobility, L'Herbier turned this very free, modern-day version of Zola's celebrated novel into a series of pretexts for outbursts of striking cinematic excess, creating a strikingly modern work marked by its opulent, over-sized sets and a complex, multi-camera shooting style. The result is a film resolutely split between narrative and spectacle, between straightforward storytelling scenes typically dominated by shot-reverse shot cutting and chaotic, exciting impressionist sequences, as when, at the Paris stock market (shot on location) a camera hanging from a pulley apparatus high above the trading floor sweeps down on the traders. The effect, presumable, means to evoke the irrational frenzy of capitalist from a decidedly right-wing perspective.

If Gance's Napoleon and Carl Th. Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc constitute the apex of big-budget historical reconstruction films in the French silent cinema, then L'Argent certainly can be taken as the culmination of the modern studio spectacular. With a five-million franc budget, L'Herbier was given privileged access to the Paris Bourse for three days of shooting (with 1,500 actors and over a dozen cameramen) and was permitted to electrify the Place de l'Opera in order to shoot a night scene of the huge crowd awaiting news of Hamelin's solo transatlantic flight. At the newly opened Studios Francoeur, Lazare Meerson and Andre Barsacq constructed immense set decors, including an enormous bank interior, several large offices and vast apartments, a dance stage for Saccard's celebration party, and an unusual circular room next to Gundermann's office whose entire wall length was covered with a giant world map.

Many of these studio spaces have smooth, polished surfaces and are stylized to the point of exhibiting little more than walls, ceilings, and floors. This stark simplicity, especially in such monumental designs, undermines any appeal to verisimilitude and tends to dissolve the boundaries differentiating one space from another. The indeterminacy of these decors, although exemplary of the modern studio spectacular, thus specifically functions to further abstract the film's capitalist intrigue. Together withe crowds of extras that often traverse the frame and chief cameraman Jules Kruger's selection of slightly wide-angle lenses and high- and low camera positions, especially for the frequent long shots or extreme long shots they produce a consistently deep-space mise-en-scene and larger than life capitalists. Furthermore, the highly stylized or generalized milieu of the film actually serves to foreground the nationalistic and class-based terms of the intrigue, articulated through the casting, and allows them to read all that more clearly.

The Modernizing strategy that shapes L'Argent's set decors and deep-space mise-en-scene was also governed, finally, by a loosely systematic discursive which many French filmmakers shared in the late 1920s. Generally, the French tended to privilege the specifically 'cinematic' elements of framing and editing - close ups (especially of objects), unusually high and low camera position, extensive camera movement, superimposition's and dissolves, various forms of rhythmic montage, associative editing. But L'Herbier's L'Argent offers another, perhaps even more interesting model for the way its reflexive style ultimately helps to articulate the film's critique of capital.

At least two particular features of this film practice loom large in L'Argent. The first feature as an absolutely unprecedented mobile camera strategy, whose high visibility and extreme dynamism render its effect peculiarly ambiguous. The range and extent of the film's camera movement is unmatched except perhaps by that in Gance's Napoleon (for which Kruger was also chief cameraman). Largely because of such unusual camera movements, in L'Argents space oscillates uncannily between the fixed and the fluid. A second feature of the film's discursive practice is its rather unconventional editing patterns, which sometimes work in tandem with camera movement. There is the uniquely persistent pattern of cutting a stable shot as a sudden camera movement becomes perceptible, which creates a slightly jarring effect in the film's rhythm that ruptures its sense of spatio-temporal continuity and foregrounds the very construction of filmic space-time.

The reflexivity of this discursive practice marks L'Argent as a Modernist text, of course, at least to the extent that the materials of the film medium and their deployment as a disruptice system become an ancillary subject of the film. L'Argents framing and editing techniques, in conjunction with set design and acting style or casting, more closely resemble those of Jean Renoir's Nana or Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, both of which serve to subvert the conventions of another genre, the historical reconstruction. Yet reflexivity here bears a subversive significance that exceeds the genre of the modern studio spectacular precisely because of L'Argent is a story of capital.

L'Argent's achievement, in the end, rests on the correlation it makes between discourse, narrative, and the subject of capital. Capital is both everywhere and nowhere, echoing Marx; it motivates nearly every character in the film and is talked about incessantly, but it is never seen or - as the dung on which life thrives - even scented.

Nevertheless, L'Argent is a beacon of modernity, an over-sized hymn to music of light, where everything is rhythm, movement, and a fantastic spiral of financial manipulations. Even today, the subject is astonishingly relevant.
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JoeytheBrit2 November 2009
I always feel sort of obliged to be impressed by films like this: made by Marcel L'Herbier, one of the giants of French silent cinema from a book by Zola, filmed on a grand scale that gives it an air of Importance (with a capital I), you really feel as though it would be sacrilegious to say anything but good things about it. But, to be brutally honest, this tale of lust and betrayal among financial high-fliers is a bit of a plod. It's not helped by the fact that its running time is a gargantuan three hours. It must have been difficult to make a film like this, where much of the 'action' relates to financial shenanigans, without the luxury of sound, which may be why L'Herbier felt it necessary to take so long to tell his tale, but maybe it would have been better to have waited until he could have made use of sound.

Pierre Alcover who plays Saccard, the treacherous financier who falls for the hapless heroine whose pilot lover has conveniently flown to Equatorial Guinea to drill for oil, is quite good, but Brigitte Helm, the comely object of his affections is just awful. She's the kind of actress who would overact when pretending to be asleep, and when she is on the brink of suicide she wanders into Saccard's office and stumbles around as if wounded by a sniper's bullet. Saccard looks like the manipulative weasel that he is. He fancies himself as a Napoleon of the financial world but, like Napoleon, he bites off more than he can chew when he locks horns with the urbane Gundermann.

The film does have some saving graces. L'Herbier's use of the camera is sublime, and gives the bored viewer something to concentrate on when the sluggish pace gets too much. Perhaps that is why he chose to film as a silent – the use of sound, while making the story easier to convey, would have restrained the camera and robbed the film of what vitality it possesses. The film does a good job of illustrating the corrupting influence of money, only over-emphasising its message on the rare occasion. As the character's become more depraved and self-absorbed their surroundings become more opulent, their clothes more refined, and it is clear that they are becoming prisoners of their possessions. There's also a great last scene – but you have to wait an unrealistically long time to get to it.
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Right On The Money
writers_reign24 March 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This is a very welcome release in the Masters of Cinema series and whilst academics will no doubt seize the opportunity to use it as a tool in the 'teaching' of film the admirers of French Cinema will relish the chance to view and/or even own a genuine early masterpiece. Marcel LHerbier made some 58 films between 1917 and 1975 and by 1921 he had already explored the world of finance with Promethe, banquier but he trumped that fine effort three times over with this adaptation of Zola in 1928. The technique on display is awesome in its ambition and staggering in its execution as time and again L'Herbier pulls off brilliant effects not least a sumptuous party that was possibly inspired by Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby which had been published some three years earlier. Though there is a substantial plot involving rival financiers, publicity stunts, solo flights, deceptions and seductions this is merely a peg on which to drape some of the most outstanding directorial flourishes in French Cinema. Unmissable.
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The weight of money.
allenrogerj20 April 2006
Warning: Spoilers
My comments are on a mere 166 minute version: I think the cuts were probably towards the end as the final section was hurried in the version I saw. More than anything the film is dominated by crowds and the massive buildings- the Bourse and the Banque Universel's offices- where Saccard operates and Saccard's own enormous and fantastic house, a scene to show spectacles, not a home. Often one of the main characters is present in a crowd scene and it takes some time before we notice them emerging from the throng. Other shots look down at crowds in the Bourse scurrying as randomly and purposefully as ants. Saccard himself is described as a "peasant" and his enormous, solid belly, often shot from a low angle (had Welles seen this film when he made Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil?) dominates the film.

There are several people with different attitudes to money- Saccard, with a peasant's desire for increase and actual physical pleasure in its possession, the aviator/explorer Hamelin, who sees it as a tool for his projects, Saccard's ex-mistress, Baroness Sandorf, for whom it is something to gamble with and buy excitement and Saccard's nemesis, Gunderman, who is a curious character- does he represent and see money as a tool for stability or is he as atavistically greedy as Saccard himself under an upper-class cover? When he destroys Saccard is it because of the danger of Saccard's methods and his disruptive effect- as he tells Saccard- or for his own profit or both? At the end, Gunderman is triumphant- if he thinks in terms of triumph- Hamelin, blinded, is in the domestic care of his wife, no longer able to fly, Saccard companies are controlled by Gunderman, Saccard himself is gaoled, yet we know nothing of Gunderson's motives or driving forces, beyond a desire to play with his dogs and a desire for financial stability. Perhaps it is because Gunderman is played by Alfred Abel, Metropolis's master of the city, that our view of the character is distorted now. Meanwhile, though he may be gaoled, Saccard asks a warder "Do you want to be rich?" and the man enters his cell.

A surprisingly modern aspect is Hamelin's flight to Guiana- a publicity stunt which is made to directly affect the shares in Saccard's companies- Saccard has arranged that reports of Hamelin's disappearance will be released, enabling him to buy back more shares. The image of the company- the intangibles in modern terms- reflected in Hamelin's feat, is what is bought along with its shares, not any real value they may have. The other astonishing thing- like other silent films at the end of the silent era- is the camera work: I mentioned some of the other shots above, but there are countless others- cameras rushing through and around the scurrying crowds, an extraordinary party at Saccard's house to celebrate Hamelin's success that Saccard will use to try to seduce Hamelin's wife, where the cameras swoop over entertainers and guests in giddying virtuosity; the sheer enjoyment of what could be done with a camera and its part in narrative and commentary on what it shows comes over seventy years later.
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Very fluidly shot silent drama, containing an excess of chic and suspense
The introduction to the movie on the UK Masters of Cinema DVD is quite good if spoken with a remarkable French certitude. The film is revealed as being, to a large extent impressionistic, L'Herbier is compared to directors such as Jean Epstein, Germaine Dulac, and Jean Gremillon. This means that the story line, although present, shouldn't be your main anchor for this viewing. It should be the images.

The film, in the main is about money, of course, the two main characters are Saccard and Gunderman, two financiers. Gunderman is a remarkably well dressed prissy man who is a kind of financial magus, like a Rothschild. Saccard owns a bank but he's down the food chain. Gunderman is intent on persecuting Saccard, we're not totally sure why but Gunderman alludes that he likes financial stability and abhors the destabilising nature of financial speculation. If only Gunderman had been advising the US government in the last few years! However to an extent Gunderman is a bit of a hypocrite as he is using rash speculation to annihilate Saccard.

Saccard uses Hamelin, a dare-devil aviator, to restore confidence in his bank. He arranges a publicity stunt, making Hamelin co-vice-chairman of the board and having him fly off in a plane to break the non-stop solo transatlantic flight record. Once in Guyana, Hamelin is then to set up some oil rigs on land he has options on. The cash from this operation will then restore the fortunes of the Banque Universelle, whilst the publicity stunt will move emotional speculation in BU's favour.

It's a two and a half hour film so there is a lot of plot. What's good though is the way the plot is worked. There is an incredible amount of suspense in the movie, it's dragged out until you're left holding tufts of hair. The level of camera-work is also astonishing, when you watch films from this era you're used to pretty static camera. Well l'Herbier is going bonkers with his camera. He has a vertical camera over the top of the Bourse (Paris stock exchange) swinging about in delirium whilst Hamelin readies to fly away. It's like watching cellular bodies under the microscope, all the little bodies polarised around the nucleus of the central dealing table.

There is a swinging shot of a street crowd that made my jaw drop, and I had to rewind. I suppose the most effectual shot for me though was quite a simple one where he let Hamelin's plane fly of the side of the frame. This is cinematic heterodoxy from what I'm aware. Usually with a shot of a plane you will see it disappear as a dot in the distance or the shot will just cut to another. But you feel a sense of loss as the plane flies off, as it's all cut with shots of Hamelin's wife, you feel what she's feeling, with her husband disappearing off for a desperate maniac flight over the abyssal blue ocean.

L'Argent is also a very glamorous movie, some of the costume jewellery on display in this movie is tres chic! The Baronin Sandorf, a very well cast lady (Brigitte Helm) who really is a human cobra, plays a minor character with Vicar of Bray leanings. She wears a solid gold headpiece and matching earrings at a party that are almost unreal. There's also some costume jewellery that Saccard gives to Line, the wife of Hamelin, that widen the eyes.

As in the early study for this film L'Herbier's 1921 "Prométhée... banquier", we are shown a banker who literally can't get away from his desk, tied down by phone calls, totally unable to give a desperate woman important human news. The movie is, however, not a paroxysm of anti-capitalist rage, it's more of a gorgeous heady melodrama that tries to have it's cake and eat it. However it does lead one's thoughts in the right direction ultimately.

The one real fault I can find with the movie was the ending 10 minutes which were clumsy. It felt like L'Herbier didn't know how to end his film. The very very last scene saved the day a bit.
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Money makes the world go around.
brogmiller8 March 2022
Nowhere is the constant struggle between art and commerce so apparent as in the world of Film and in this distinctly loose and updated adaptation of Emile Zola's novel depicting the evils of financial speculation, director Marcel L'Herbier is pointing the finger at the money men who feel that their profit-driven investment gives them the divine right to meddle in the creative process. Ironically, L'Herbier would have been unable to make the film without its being financed to the tune of five million francs!

The tug of war between director and producer resulted in the latter excising thirty minutes from the film and not until its restoration half a century later were the lost scenes restored. Indeed it was not until the restoration that the film's acclaim finally matched its reputation and it has belatedly been acknowledged as one of the true masterpieces of silent cinema. As a bonus this same restoration has gifted us a highly charged score for piano composed and played by Jean-Francois Zygels.

The technical virtuosity of this film is simply stunning with the sweeping camerawork of Jules Kruger, low and high angle shots and Eisensteinian montage. L'Herbier's love of Art Deco is again evident in the magnificent sets designed by Lazare Meerson and André Barsacq. We are also treated to spectacular scenes in the Bourse, the fictitious World Bank, the Place de l'Opéra and the piéce de resistance, the financier Saccard's evening party.

L'Herbier has made sure that his film's immensity does not diminish the characters. This is surely Pierre Alcover's finest hour as Saccard, a monster of greed and rapacity who is also a pitiful creature. By arrangement with UFA the film also stars Brigitte Helm and Alfred Abel, both fresh from 'Metropolis'. Miss Helm as Baroness Sandorf has never been quite as sinuous and sensuous as she slithers around encased in Jacques Manuel's fabulous costumes. As she writhes on the sofa she epitomises the sheer carnality of wealth. The slight frame of Alfred Abel as Gunderman is in striking contrast to the corpulence of Alcover as his arch rival and his reptilian-like portrayal makes one think what a marvellous Professor Moriarty he would have made. As a contrast to the slinky Baroness we have the full-figured Marie Glory who is at her most appealing here in probably her finest role as Line Hamelin who is intoxicated by the lifestyle offered by Saccard's money but is not prepared to pay the price required. Dramatically effective is a rare appearance on film of Yvette Guilbert, former cabaret artiste immortalised by Toulouse-Lautrec, as a figure of Doom whose presence has always haunted Saccard and is there to witness his downfall.

This monumental piece is L'Herbier's greatest achievement and in his own words, 'the summit of my silent career'. No true cinéfile I am sure would disagree.
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The San Francisco Silent Film Festival 6th Annual Winter Event, David Jeffers for SIFFblog.com
rdjeffers10 February 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Gekko à la Bourse

Saturday February 12, 3:30pm, The Castro, San Francisco

An unscrupulous banker battles for dominance on and off the floor of the Paris Stock Exchange. In a scheme to save his failing business, Saccard (Pierre Alcover) exploits celebrity aviator Jacques Hamelin (Victor Henry) by financing his solo transatlantic flight, then manipulating stock and Hamelin's fragile wife, when false rumors of the flier's death are reported.

A cautionary tale of fraud, corruption and the evils of money, L'Argent (1928) was based on Émile Zola's original 1890 novel and brought to the screen by director Marcel L'Herbier for the princely sum of five million francs. With a dizzying combination of complex camera-work, editing, monumental set construction, locations including Le Bourget Field and the Paris Bourse, L'Herbier's epic also included a literal cast of thousands. Standout performances feature Brigitte Helm as the slinky femme fatale, Mary Glory as the forlorn Mme. Hamelin and Alcover as the greedy whirlwind who goes down fighting.
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Well made, I suppose, but boring
zetes6 September 2015
As a treatise on the evils of bankers, this film was quite prescient. However, this nearly three hour film is quite a slog. Recounting the story, I cannot come up with a reason it needed to run over 90 minutes. Pierre Alcover is the fat, evil banker in question (he might even be Jewish; he sort of looks it). He comes up with a scheme to increase his banks funds by backing a trans-ocean flight using a new fuel in which his bank is investing. Henry Victor is the victim. As a bonus, his beautiful wife, Marie Glory, is left alone for Alcover to hit on when Victor is dead, or at least trapped in South America. Brigitte Helm also co-stars. I was never 100% sure how she fit in, but it's nice to have her here. The performances are all very good, and there are actually plenty of fine moments, and L'Herbier's camera glides around beautifully. Unfortunately, the excellent filmmaking is only in small portions of the film. Since its subject is financial wheelings and dealings, most of the time the film consists of people standing in rooms and talking to each other.
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A lost classic
MOscarbradley9 September 2015
Marcel L'Herbier's "L'Argent" clocks in at 195 minutes. Nothing strange about that you might think but this is a silent film, made in France in 1928 and dealing, not in the epic themes of a "Ben Hur", an "Intolerance" or a "Napoleon" but in the contemporary, in the everyday, though not in the mundane. The title translates as 'Money' and money permeates every aspect of this picture which is 'inspired by' rather than based on a novel by Zola. It may not be a masterpiece but it is quite extraordinary just as it is extraordinary to think audiences ever took to this film, set largely in the world of stock exchanges and high finance, which isn't just on the long side but is also sophisticated and challenging. It requires more than patience; it requires intelligence. The plot may be melodramatic, necessary at the time perhaps to draw its audience in, but it is a film that deals in depth with unusual themes. It is also superbly acted, (the large cast includes the great Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel and in a small part, Jules Berry), photographed and edited. Indeed, this is one of the great 'lost' silent pictures and it really needs rediscovery.
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Gave me a headache
westerfieldalfred11 August 2019
With all the raves of the camera work in the reviews, I anticipated a masterpiece. What I saw was amateur film making. The lack of focus would have been acceptable, if it targeted on the players or the action. Instead, it merely appeared as a combination of lack of lighting and a focus puller. The camera movement was unacceptable; jerky and out of focus. Some scenes appeared to have Vaseline smeared around the edges of the lens. That would be fine, but the next scene, just taken from another angle, did not. Medium shots alternated between in-focus and out. All of this created eye strain.

But beyond this, the plot was not understandable at points, and repetitive. I had wanted to see the film for the impressive sets, yet the excessive camera movement and overlays of scenes during the party, made we want to search for stills. As far as I'm concerned, the only saving grace is the excellent acting.
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Just not very interesting
chrislivings13 December 2021
Bottom line is do you want a fat sweaty bloke in your face for over two hours.

This film technically comes across as almost amateur the picture wobbles and moves about most of the time for no real needed effect the grain is very harsh the extreme wide angle lenses cause a lot of distortion. This film needed tighter editing and a much reduced running time. The stories not that interesting to the point of being boring. When you think about the same time Fritz Lang was making Spione with much imagination and flare where's this looks like the director's been given the toy box with no follow through talent.
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