A Shrug of the Shoulders: Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Argent

By Graeme Hobbs

largent-marcel-lherbier.jpgL'Argent, 1928

The tale of an innocent man getting caught up in the wreckage created by the speculations of rival bankers is an apposite one for our times. The film, inspired by Zola’s novel of the same name, is Marcel L'Herbier's L'Argent – Money – from 1928. With its budget of five million francs it was a big international co-production featuring German stars in Brigitte Helm and Alfred Abel, three days of shooting in the Paris Bourse itself using 1500 actors and over a dozen cameramen, a night scene of expectant crowds in an electrified Place de l’Opéra, the construction of large sets of luxurious apartments and offices and even the interior of a bank. And yet within this film of excessive scale there is another, far more intimate film at work. For all the international high finance in operation, this is also a chamber piece that tells the story of solitary people in large rooms, who meet now and again, play out their power games and attempt to possess others.

The two films are interdependent. The critic René Lebreton, writing in 1929, noted this when he wrote that “each of L’Argent’s tableaux is in some way permeated by an almost carnal frisson in league with frightful power that confers to its shareholders’ wealth.”

The film depicts the machinations of finance. In an attempt to revive the capital of his Banque Universelle, financier audacieux Nicolas Saccard invests in an aviator’s attempt to fly 7,000 km from Paris to Guiana, where the aviator also has options on land containing oil. Publicity surrounding the flight captures the public imagination and the bank’s shares are popular – especially with rival financier Gundermann who, unknown to Saccard, has stocked up on them, to hold on to until the right moment comes to ensure his competitor’s ruin.

largent-marcel-lherbier-2.jpgL'Argent, 1928

L’Argent shows a world of arrangements and deals wherein people are objects of secondary importance to the primary goal of moneymaking. Except the aviator’s wife Line, everyone knows this. Even the aviator Jacques Hamelin has a presentiment of his part in Saccard’s grand scheme, but is prepared to go along with it because it allows him to fulfil his dreams of exploration and achievement.

The contempt with which characters, Saccard especially, play with other’s lives is shown by the simplest of means and gestures. For all the opulent display in the film, this is a tale in which the most telling gesture is a shrug of the shoulders. Four examples: early on, when it appears Saccard is ruined, the sinister doom bird of La Méchain, a woman who preys on ailing companies, watches him walk away to his fate with a simple shrug, her eyes twinkling with greed. His fortunes will change, other men will take his place with their own plans for financial gain; she will be there waiting to pick from the carcass of their dreams. (She is, by the by, played by the cabaret singer, art nouveau poster girl and favourite model for Toulouse-Lautrec, Yvette Guilbert, in one of her very few film performances).

Later, we see Saccard in Hamelin's home, where he has gone to hear of the man’s plans for his transatlantic flight. His eyes however are on Hamelin’s wife Line and his thoughts are on possessing her as much as they are on the plans for the journey. When she walks away after serving him a drink, he sees her pat down a badly worn rug with her feet (an act picked up on by Jean-François Zygel’s fine piano accompaniment) and he chuckles, once, to himself: he has suddenly realised that she can be bought. The next shrug of the shoulders comes after Saccard, contrary to the press reports of Hamelin’s death, has received word that he in fact safe and well. He exploits this information by waiting until his shares fall low enough that he can buy them all back. Line, however, believes she has lost her husband and goes to confront Saccard in his office, where he is busy deal-making on his numerous telephone lines. Line’s attitude on realising that her husband is alive is one of horror and a complete incomprehension of Saccard’s world. In the face of this, Saccard shrugs his shoulders and gets back to the telephone lines.

largent-marcel-lherbier-3.jpgL'Argent, 1928

The final gesture comes when the warder is showing Saccard the door of his prison cell. Saccard’s mind is alive with ideas for the future and has continued walking. He turns, shrugs again, and walks in, inviting the warder to join him in his plans – which he does when no-one can see that he has gone into the cell. It’s a fantastic ending which, in its symbolism of a banker hatching plans of dubious legality from the inside of a prison cell with the collusion of a warder, is highly charged. We know the cycle will recommence; we know that the lives of more innocents will be caught up in the financial paper chase, and we know that their fates will be met with a simple shrug of the shoulders.

With the very letters of the opening title, this is a film of sheen, glitter and sparkle - from Saccard’s eyes with their predatory gleam to jewellery, dresses, sequins, hats and drapes, surfaces are alive with reflected light. Even scenes that fade to black leave only the sparkle of jewels as the last sight of a person. Saccard’s great party, displayed in grand sweeps of show, dissolves into a halo of glow and gleam.

In L’Argent, personal want is is always connected with financial gain. When Hamelin shows Saccard the photographs of the place to which he is planning to fly; Saccard glances through them perfunctorily, more interested in Hamelin's wife. He looks up at her back, her dress a sheen of black satin. There's oil there, says Hamelin, and the link is again made – as previously in the restaurant where Saccard eyed up Line’s legs beneath the table – between business and sex, desire for possession and desire for money through commodities. Many of Line’s clothes have the sheen of black gold. When later, on his kness, Saccard kisses her, he kisses the gold-braided hem of her dress, bought on her absent husband’s cheque account.

largent-marcel-lherbier-4.jpgL'Argent, 1928

Pearls, a bracelet, a dress – something is always glistening on the other notable woman in the film, Baronne Sandorf, a role which sees Brigitte Helm, fresh from her Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, appear as a lithe, fickle, scheming socialite whose attentions and sinuous charms are only for those on the up and in the money. Part clothes-hanger, part femme fatale, her best scene sees her meet Saccard in her home in a dress that appears closer to liquid than fabric. She slinks around and writhes like a silverfish as she and Saccard play out a charged scene of sexual jealousy and domination while the busy hands of baccarat players show as shadows on the ceiling of the gaming room behind the screens.

This a fascinating film of its time. There is the frenzied activity of the stock market, depicted at times from a bird's eye view of the antlike activity of the waving arms, scurrying, frantically waving men under high ceilings, leaving behind them a litter of trading slips on the floor, but this is also a film of newly-established communication lines – of telephones, telegrams, wireless announcements, switchboard operators; lightboards and ticker-tape machines processing snippets of news in a world of exploration and exploitation. In one notable sequence, the stock market floor is intercut with shots of the turning propeller of Hamelin’s aeroplane before he leaves on his record-breaking attempt.

largent-marcel-lherbier-5.jpgL'Argent, 1928

By the end, Line and Jacques have come under the protection of Saccard’s pekinese-petting rival Gundermann, played by the other German star in the film Alfred Abel, who also appeared in Lang’s Metropolis, as the futuristic city’s leader. Clipped and precise in his actions, he stands in marked contrast to the moon-faced, corpulent, cigar-puffing capitalist Saccard. While Jacques is in court, Gundermann meets Line in his extraordinary antechamber, an enclosing circular room filled with a map of the world showing his shipping lines, supply routes, refineries and ports. Your husband is an admirable engineer, his invention is full of promise, says Gundermann in front of a depiction of South America. Hamelin’s skill can be exploited, profited from. As before, he, and Line have been bought, and Gundermann is again master of all – subject, of course, to the rumours and whispers, bluff and bluster that plays out on the chequered gaming-board floor of the Bourse. And if things don’t work out as planned, he can always shrug his shoulders. That’s what money really buys.

Graeme Hobbs lives, works, gardens and makes chapbooks in the borderlands.