‘capital remains invisible’: L’Argent/Money (1928)

December 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

C’est proces est, peut-on dire…le proces de l’argent (You might say what is on trial…is money) proclaims the judge in the trial scene from the film L’Argent (Money). Directed by the French-born, Marcel L’Herbier and released in December, 1928, the film was an adaption of a story by the writer, Emile Zola. While Zola intended his story to be a ‘scathing representation of the French banking system of the Second Empire’, LHerbier sought in his ‘modernising’ version to ‘express, in all its modern virulence, his own contempt for money and capitalist speculation’. Centered on two duelling Bankers, the tale recounts their speculatory struggles against one another.


If somewhat ironically, the film cost almost 4 million French Francs at the time to produce, a fortune in today’s terms. L’Herbier had secured three full days access to the Paris Bourse (Paris Stock Exchange), where seeking to exploit the limited time,  ‘there were fifteen hundred extras, about fifteen technicians, scaffolding that went up to almost the summit of the cupola, forty metres from the floor…and cameras everywhere’ (L’Herbier). Such scale is reflected throughout the film and, could be argued, evokes the privileged context it seeks to critically address.

'Traders on the Trading Floor' (still from L'Argent, 1928)

‘Traders on the Trading Floor’ (still from L’Argent, 1928)

Prior to the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the central narrative is framed by the structures of world financial spheres, through images of the application of communications technology, named world city exchanges repeatedly referenced to locating the viewer in the midst of the Open Outcry of the traders on the Parisian Trading Floor. One of the innovative dimensions to the film is the ‘absolutely unprecedented mobile camera strategy’ (Noel Burch), exemplified in one key sequence. The film’s focus of speculation is the cross-channel flight of a pioneer pilot and the possible riches to be exploited from the site of his destination and at the time of his departure, the propellors of his plane mimic the frenzied activity of the Trading Pit of the Paris Bourse, ‘recorded by an automatic camera descending on a cable from the dome toward the central stock exchange ring’ (Richard Abel). The activities are visually bound, synergies heightened, the speculative process and those involved, implicated.

Trading Pit of the Paris Bourse (still from L'Argent, 1928)

Trading Pit of the Paris Bourse (still from L’Argent, 1928)

The film critically acknowledges the interconnectedness of a then world economy, and while the scales of precarity and scope of speculation could be argued to have broadened, the resonance regarding the defining function of the market for the global neoliberal present are significant. The film studies and cultural historian, Richard Abel, writes:

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, as Pierre Jouvet argues, 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. Capital remains invisible, and yet, its ideological manifestation, produces a surplus of effects…the film reflects on and critiques that which it cannot represent directly – the crucial reference point of a crisis in capitalist exploitation or, more specifically, the condition of western capitalist society on the brink of the Great Depression. 

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