Friday, July 13, 2012

Marcel L'Herbier | L'Argent

rise and fall
by Douglas Messerli

Arthur Bernède (screenplay, based on the novel by Émile Zola), Marcel L'Herbier (director) L'Argent / 1928, premiered 1929

Almost from the outset Marcel L'Herbier's magnificent L'Argent is a work about rising and falling. The film begins with the fall of the banker Nicolas Saccard's (Pierre Alcover) financial empire, Banque Universelle, when an investor, Salomon Massias (Alexandre Mihalesco) refuses to go along with a board decision to approve more funding. Massais, it appears, is in league with the banker Alphonse Gundermann (Alfred Abel), who disapproves of Saccard's methods and is out to destroy him. In an attempt to save his bank, Saccard joins forces with a pioneering aviator, Jacques Hamelin (Henry Victor), in financing the first solo transatlantic flight to open up the oil-producing fields of French Guyane.

      Hamelin, having heard of Saccard's vicious banking methods, is not at all sure that he wants to join forces with the banker; but his young, very naive wife, Line (Mary Glory) is awed by the money and social associations that might be provided by her husband's rise and convinces him to sign-on as vice-president of Saccard's board. He does so, however, only on the condition that he be the one to fly solo to Guyane and set up the refineries there—all to the great distress of Line, worried for husband's life and for the long period of isolation.

       For 40 hours the world waits, finally receiving a report that Hamelin's plane has fallen into the ocean. Saccard, however, through the machinations of his personal secretary, M. Mazaud (played by later director-writer Antonin Artaud), has closely followed Hamelin's flight, and has news that the young aviator has succeeded, information Saccard keeps secret, as the bank stocks fall. At a low point in the stock, he and his confederates buy, only to release the good news, making themselves a fortune. But Gundermann has also, secretly, bought stocks in Banque Universelle from several of the cities from which he operates.

      So is the outline of this moral tale of good and evil, or more specifically, this tale of how money corrupts all. In L'Herbier's long, nearly 200 minute movie, there are numerous side stories and dozens of other figures, including Saccard's former mistress, the gambling beauty La baronne Sandorf (Brigitte Helm), who has left Saccard for Gundermann. But the importance of L'Herbier's L'Argent lies not in its story line and variations as much as it does in the cinematic telling. Perhaps the most expensive movie ever made—L'Herbier suggests that it cost nearly four million francs, which would be in the 1978 market, when he was interviewed, about a billion francs—the director spared nothing in capturing a lavish world of wealth and power. Able to film four days during a holiday in the French Bourse, L'Herbier and his cinematographer, Jules Kruger, take their camera to dizzying heights as they look down on the floor of Bourse, showing the more than 2000 extras who play investors as ants spinning around the various centers of money (L'Herbier quotes Zola several times in his statement that money is "the dung on which life thrives"), suddenly plunging the camera to the floor to immerse the viewer into the center of the crowded action. If there was ever a cinematic manifestation of the film's "rise and fall" thematic it is in these scenes.

      But just as impressive are numerous other moments, such as the scene early in the film when Massias visists Gundermann's mansion after Saccard's fall, permitted into room after room, with some of the walls decorated in flight patterns of the banker's oil connections, others with opulent scenes, before being led to Gundermann at his breakfast table, quietly dipping into a boiled egg as he pets his two Pekinise dogs, a scene that has relationships with Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad—although in this case it's a man the character comes to fawn upon instead of a kittenish woman from his "imagined" past.

     One of the most fascinating of the movie's many montages or superimpositions is the twirl of the wheels of Hamelin's plane as it moves forward in space, spinning along with it the whole world of banks and bourse and the grand events in which these two worlds are now wound.

     Similarly, Line's night-time view from Saccard's office of the Place de l'Opéra where hundreds of individuals have gathered under the lights to hear of the progress of Hamelin's transatlantic flight, enwraps her in a world of a delirious confusion, ending with Saccard's first unsuccessful sexual attack, creating an equally dizzying sensation which might be said to define Line's frail condition at nearly all times in this film.

     Another scene, the grand party Saccard gives in honor Line, which includes a special moat-like construction for the orchestra replete with a bridge across which jazz dancers kick their legs high (two of the large female dancers looking suspiciously like males in drag) is awe-inspiring, as we gradually realize this frenetic action is set contrapuntally against a desperate Line hiding out in a side room, separated by a futuristic row of hanging  plastic tubes, ready to shoot her host. Strangely, the self-protecting La baronne prevents Line from accomplishing the act, while saving also her enemy's life.

     Saccard, on the other hand, nearly chockes her to death when he shows up at one of La baronne's gambling parties, the reflections of the gamblers overhead played out against the violent environment in which Saccard and the baronne are enmeshed.

     Certainly some of these masterfully created and always grand cinematically beautiful shots are overkill, given the relative simplicity of the good and bad scenarios they embrace. There are moments, one must admit, when one feels he is witnessing the story of "Sweet Nell and the evil villain" being played in a palace setting. Many of the critics of the original showing argued against what they found as scant justification for the indulgent sets and camerawork.  But ultimately, if the cinema conquers the tale, who cares?: it is a momentous thing to behold.

     In the tale itself, Saccard goes to jail, and the young hero, now going blind, returns home only to be arrested for being involved with Saccard's swindle. There is something joyously loony about a blind navigator (blind not only physically but spiritually) and his utterly innocent wife having been so swept up into this international spectacle. They are both so simple and unpretentious (Hamelin is handsome but his face is badly scared and Line is, as I have suggested, always about to faint) that it is nearly unimaginable that they could even have come to know a Saccard, let alone be saved by Gundermann.

     As for Saccard—always the evil villain, but also strangely portrayed, at times, as a kind of sad-sack comedian who can find no joy in his lusts—at film's end he has discovered a new victim, the jailer who locks him up! Accordingly, the film closes less as a didactic moral statement (although there is certainly that in the plot) than as a kind of comic revelation that such a grand world often leads nowhere. But there is always a difference, as L'Herbier perceives, between life and art. And perhaps the art needs to be grand where life does not. That this film, updated from Zola's day to the French market of the time, should have been made just years before the international monetary collapse of the early 1930s, is all the more amazing, and revelatory of L'Herbier's somewhat clairvoyant perspective. Certainly his art would influence film for years to come.

     The same year this movie premiered, the first talkie The Jazz Singer was shown in France, and, despite L'Herbier's innovative sound experiments (the recorded putters and sputters of the plane, the mumbles of the crown scenes) embedded into L'Argent, within just a few months the kind of impressionist cinema he had helped to create, in which the visual dominated the realism of dialogue-oriented book-bound scripts, L'Herbier's experiments suddenly seemed outdated. And, although the director continued over the next several years to attempt to produce experimental cinema, he ultimately gave up those attempts, himself becoming seduced, perhaps, by script-based film-making. Coherence and realist narrative came to dominate over the theatrical and performative "rises and falls" of his kind of cinematic art.

Los Angeles, July 12, 2012

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