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vast sets in L'Argent

overhead view in L'Argent

Brigette Helm in L'Argent

 
 
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L'Argent
cast: Pierre Alcover, Brigitte Helm, Mary Glory, Henry Victor, and Alfred Abel

director: Marcel L'Herbier

164 minutes (PG) 1928
Eureka DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Eureka Entertainment's thoroughly excellent Masters of Cinema collection rumbles ever forward with what must be one of the most remarkable DVD releases of the year. Initially released in 1928, L'Argent was the last silent film made by Marcel L'Herbier, one of the artistic pioneers of cinema.

Epic both in terms of length and production values, L'Argent is based on a novel of the same name by the French author Zola. It depicts the fall or Saccard (Pierre Alcover), an important man in the world of French finance who makes his money not by investing wisely in sound companies but rather by speculating upon the rise and fall of the stock market, which he manipulates with consummate ease. The film begins with Saccard being brought low by his great rival Gunderman (Alfred Abel), a more ethical investor who wants to destroy Saccard for his 'speculative' strategies.

The film then advances and we see Saccard stripped of the respect and standing that he took to be his by right. However, after noticing a young man's pretty wife (Mary Glory), he learns that he is a pilot named Hamelin (Henry Victor) who has put together a number of technical innovations but is now facing ruin. Seeing the potential for publicity, Saccard hires Hamelin and sends him off in his own plane to start drilling for oil in a far-flung colony but a false report of Hamelin's death sends the shares crashing. Informed, by coded telegram, that Hamelin is safe, Saccard takes the opportunity to buy up shares in his own bank while others are selling, omitting to inform Hamelin's wife Line that her husband is not really dead.

With her husband away drilling, Saccard is intent upon seducing the na�ve and eerily sexless Line but she resists, prompting Saccard to trap her in a web of debt that ends with his trying to rape her. Terrified and trapped, Line turns to the Baroness Sandorff (Brigitte Helm) for advice and, as Sandorff has her own financial interests at heart, she initially suggests filing a complaint but then relents, restraining Line's attempts at vengeance as she becomes fearful of what might happen to share prices should Saccard be killed.

Meanwhile, it transpires that between bad luck and ill health, Hamelin's drilling has become an expensive liability that Saccard has kept from the public (still eager to believe in the heroic airman turned entrepreneur). The situation is brought to an end when Gunderman sells all of his shares in Saccard's company, prompting its collapse and that of Saccard with it. Seeing the value of Hamelin's inventions, Gunderman then steps in and saves the couple from debt and the destruction of their reputations as Saccard is sent to jail.

On the surface, L'Argent is a rather heavy-handed morality tale. Saccard is portrayed as a fat and greasy villain because he speculates on the stock exchange while the absurdly effete Gunderman is seen as a moral champion despite the fact that he would gladly ruin hundreds of small investors and bank employees just for the pleasure of seeing his rival excluded from the world of finance. Interestingly, this rather simplistic and arbitrary piece of moralising is not present in the original work by Zola, who ensures that the whole of France shakes as the bank collapses and while Gunderman makes money out of the deal, many other investors are driven to ruin, madness and suicide. The more even-handed and systematic vision of the original source material is visible in the fact that the film effectively presents Saccard, despite his many flaws, as if not an anti-hero then certainly a protagonist.

This impression is only strengthened by the extraordinary performance and screen presence of Pierre Alcover but unlike most of the other characters, Saccard seems to be completely at ease with himself. Indeed, Line is a na�ve and sexless creature who lies to her husband and forces him into dangerous jobs he does not want in order to make her rich, while Hamelin himself is a dithering fool who is far more interested in flying his plane than loving his wife. The same goes for the financier Gunderman who is so manicured and refined that he appears to wander around with the facial expression of a man forced to wade through raw sewage.

Compared to this anaemic and constipated lot, Saccard has a real piratical charm. He has his match only in his former lover the Baroness Sandorff - a woman invariably clad in astonishing outfits made of silk and feathers - played by Brigitte Helm who is best known for her role as Maria in Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The relationship between these two climaxes in an astounding scene in which Saccard tries to force information out of Sandorff while she writhes and grinds away beneath him with a naughty grin on her face, completely aware of what she is doing. These two are the only sexual creatures in the entire film and they are both completely at home being who they are. At the end of the film Saccard is lead away in chains but he suggests to his gaoler that he has a plan that will make both of them rich. A crook, a thief and an attempted rapist, Saccard is incapable of change. He is irrepressible.

Aside from the compelling narrative told with amazing elegance through physical acting and occasional inter-titles, L'Argent is most notable for the way it looks. Made at great expense, L'Argent not only contains footage shot in the actual French stock market with the aid of literally thousands of extras but also sets so huge and cathedral-like that they frequently dwarf the characters. Particularly noteworthy are the vast offices of the main characters; temples of modernism full of the latest gadgets such as stock-tickers, telephones and complicated maps, these 'offices' feature not only huge desks but sofas and chairs and tables in rooms so huge you could quite comfortably house entire families in them. Even the apartment of Lin and Hamelin features ceilings that must be easily over 10 metres up and Saccard's home features a ballroom that looks like something out of a vintage Hollywood musical and a drawing room of such sublime art deco styling and scale that you would think that it had been filmed inside the Chrysler Building.

These amazingly lavish sets are also shot with considerable style. Considering that this film is now over 80 years old, it is interesting to note how many clever camera techniques are used. We have dolly shots, crane shots, travelling shots as well as all kinds of fades and intentional out-of-focus shooting. When you consider that this film was shot entirely with cameras that were turned by hand and with hardly any post-production cleverness, the sheer scale of L'Herbier's technical achievement is immediately obvious. Even setting aside the technical aspect of the film, L'Argent also boasts some amazing pieces of cinematic composition such as the confrontation between Saccard and Sandorff, played out in a darkened room with shadows from the Baroness' under-lit gaming table projected onto the ceiling.

The only downside to this production is the soundtrack, and even this was added recently. When L'Argent was originally screened it would, of course, have been accompanied by a pianist, organist, or orchestras of various sizes playing in the cinema. Most commonly, a musical director would fit the various scenes to snippets of better-known works so as to convey mood and atmosphere. However, this DVD has been released with a French composer improvising a sound track whilst watching it. Rather than attempting to put together the kind of accompaniment that the film might have had at the time of its release, the composer subjects us to a relentlessly atonal score in the style of the period composer Arnold Schoenberg. At times, this works really well... particularly during the lavish crowd scenes in the stock exchange and the bank where the modernist styling of the music perfectly compliment the grinding of the wheels of capitalism.

At times of more dramatic tension or romance, the atonal score grates and becomes repetitive and I suspect that a number of people might well occasionally reach for the mute button given that the film runs for close to three hours. This is, however, a relatively minor complaint and I'm sure that people more tolerant of contemporary 'classical' music will get on better with this aspect of the DVD than I did.

Many of the film's technical challenges (as well as the DVD's score) are documented in the superb suite of extras that are included on the second DVD. Aside from an hour-long documentary about L'Herbier and the film featuring archive footage of interviews with the director as well as more recent ones with critics and historians, the film includes one of the first ever 'making of' documentaries. Made up of footage shot on the set of the film by a stills photographer who talks (via a soundtrack recorded in the 1970s) about how the film was made the piece shows the size of the production as well as the extended and detailed instructions that L'Herbier gave to his actors. Clearly, with little dialogue to perform, screenplays concentrated far more upon the emotions and the poses that the actors were expected to assume for the purposes of the scene. Clearly, period actors were given little leeway for interpretation.

On the whole, L'Argent is a very good film packaged here as a superb DVD release. The insights into period filmmaking included in the extras are legion and it is genuinely fascinating to see a film that was conceived, written and shot with little care for dialogue. This is undeniably a great release and an absolute must for anyone with an interest in cinematic history. Bravo, Eureka Entertainment!
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