“Money passed through like a cyclone.”
Marcel L’Herbier’s dazzling assault on capitalism updates Émile Zola’s 1890-91 novel Money, part of the Rougon-Macquart series, from the 1860s to the 1920s and, alas, remains current. The plot turns on the rivalry between Saccard and Gunderman, two financiers. They operate in a world that reeks of money—wealth without bounds or taste; Saccard is a plump, brutal speculator, a financial Id, and Gunderman a lean, cooler, more ultimately conniving and controlling financial Superego. (The reception area of Saccard’s office sports a circular world map indicating his rival’s holdings—an image of the world domination that both men pursue.) Saccard arranges a stunt to benefit his Universal Bank: Jacques Hamelin’s flight to French Guyana (a parody of Lindbergh’s 1927 solo flight from New York to Paris), where, engineer as well as aviator, Hamelin will exploit natives for the rigging of Saccard’s oil drilling operation. Hamelin is a dupe, whose perfectly symbolical trouble with his eyesight helps get his signature on a document that ties his legal fate to Saccard’s fraudulent schemes; meanwhile, in Hamelin’s absence, Saccard pursues Hamelin’s wife.
Inspired by Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927), L’Herbier has created a stunning, opulent 2¾-hour spectacle that brings a rich variety of avant-garde techniques into mainstream filmmaking, as well as dynamic use of mobile camera (including cuts between different traveling shots), a breathtaking variety of camera angles, and a deliberate rushing back and forth between the prosaic and bursts of poetry. Many of L’Herbier’s techniques, including point-of-view shots, amidst colonialist exploitation, showing Hamelin’s foggy vision, destabilize frames to suggest the exploitative, self-delusional, sandcastle-building nature of money-pursuit and Mammonism.
Zola called money “the dung on which life thrives.” L’Herbier: “[M]oney was really the bane of all filmmakers, since we couldn’t do anything without it.”
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