Sunday, 1 December 2013

Immersed… Napoléon (1927) with Carl Davis, Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall

“Maintain radioactivity during the creation of Napoléon. Only write in moments like these...” Abel Gance

Oh where to start? It’s the morning after the day before and my head is still full of the Abel Gance’s images and Carl Davis’ music.

This was the biggest silent cineaste party of the year: one huge film in four parts, a sixty piece orchestra and those three stunning screens… Napoléon is a rich artistic achievement that still over-reaches itself 85 years after it was created.

Even when you know what to expect, this was the most visceral of cinematic experiences and one that almost defies rationalisation: you respond in the most subjective, emotional ways and you are constantly surprised… you can’t quite keep up.

Locked in the Royal Festival Hall from lunchtime to closing time, you are sucked into the heart of Gance’s story by his relentless energy and invention. From the beginning you are placed right in the visual heart as the camera roams freely through the snowball fight that is the foretaste of every battle to come. But it’s not just the mobility of the image, it’s the way Gance captures his actor’s emotion, cuts rapidly between his shots and overlays images that show their interior responses to the action.

Vladimir Roudenko and Albert Dieudonné play Napoléon young and old and are marvellously expressive, but only Gance can show you what they are actually thinking of: conquest, Josephine, a pet eagle… sometimes all at the same time in multiple exposures on three screens.

Simon Pegg recently described modern cinema as being like fireworks but Gance was making the explosions first, using every technical advance he could to disorientate the viewer and make them submit to the story. Forget 3D he had polyvision, cameras on bikes and horses (steam powered to counter the motion) as well as hand-held and suspended on a giant pendulum. And, whilst he originally had music from Arthur Honegger, today he had Carl Davis and the mighty Philharmonia channelling Beethoven, Mozart and Hayden – so, come and have a go Hans Zimmer if you really think you’re hard enough!

Davis’ score is an amazing composition which matches the film’s energy and tone: heroic and soulful. Even with the three breaks it must push the players to the limits: I’m amazed at the endurance and the fact that Mr Davis appeared as spritely for his fourth bow on the podium as he did for the first. Needless to say, there was a suitably-sustained standing ovation at the end… and perhaps we were also clapping ourselves for experiencing this wonder: we did it – the whole day long: we saw Napoléon!

As the crowds floated away a huddle remained around Kevin Brownlow without whom the film would not exist in the form it does… something close to Gance’s original before it was so cruelly butchered.  Here was also our physical connection to the director whom he met on a number of occasions and who got to see his original restoration aged 90. When we got home we re-watched the Napoléon section in Brownlow’s The Music of Light which features an interview with Gance as well as cinematographer Jules Kruger.

Napoléon as seen by Abel Gance to give its full title, was the first of six planned movies on Napoleon but the first one was enough… as financial issues and a mixed reception clipped Gance’s wings. There were spectacular performances with both triptych sequences intact and a full orchestra but the general distribution was compromised by business meddling. In the end, the final part, Saint Helena was made from his script by Lupu Pick in 1929 and Gance made Austerlitz in 1959 with a multi-national cast including Orson Welles and Leslie Caron.

This first part takes us from Napoléon’s school days, through the Revolution, the Terror and to his first successful foray into Italy aged just 28 and two days after his marriage to Joséphine de Beauharnais. Had Gance carried on in the same manner, it would have taken us till at least Thursday to get to Waterloo: either the battle or the station for the journey home…

School days
But what remains is a powerful exposition on the nature of the man and his motivations. Napoléon’s rise to power is amongst the most startling in history and whilst his elevation to Emperor and expansion across Europe mark him as a military dictator of the highest order – 17 years of conflict and as many as six million dead - he also brought reform as well as order.  He was a man of incredible drive and intellect and in a country that had to re-invent its concepts of authority and nation after the end of monarchy, understanding him and his relationship to the Revolution was an enduring concern when the Third Republic faced the Great War and France struggled in the aftermath.

Saint-Just, Robespierre, Danton and Marat
Gance wasn’t excusing the tyrant-to-be just trying to explain him… and, then as now, being even handed with despots is a minefield. The Revolutionary period is not straightforward and even “The Gods” - Danton, Marat and the notorious Robespierre - all fall from grace at some point: not for nothing is the latter seen reading a biography of Cromwell… All of their reputations reflect the political mores of the day but they were revolutionary.

Albert Dieudonné
Dieudonné is mesmerising as Napoléon and carries the weight of the film and history on his narrow but firmly-set shoulders… this was pretty much a suicide mission for any French actor and yet he is entirely convincing even in a wig that gives him a passing resemblance to Noel Fielding.

His Jospehine is Gina Manès (so amazing in Coeur Fidele) whose electric blue eyes are given full reign as she lures the young general in whilst politicking on his behalf with her paramour the Vicomte de Barras.

Gina Manès
 Alexandre Koubitzky makes for an operatically expressive Georges Danton, Antonin Artaud (known for the Theatre of Cruelty) is a twisted Marat whilst Edmond Van Daële (the baddie in Coeur Fidele) plays Robespierre, hiding his thoughts behind deeply tinted glasses.

Abel Gance himself plays Louis de Saint-Just encapsulating the movement’s conflicted delight in the removal of opposition via Madame La Guillotine whilst at the same time, passionately defending the continuing revolution in front of the baying mob in the Assembly.

"The Gods": Marat, Danton and Robespierre
There are two other roles that also mark Gance’s view of greater events with Tristan Fleuri (Nicolas Koline) as an “everyman” who pops up throughout the key moments of Napoléon’s career and his daughter Violine (Annabella who later married Tyrone Power!) who starts her own cult of Napoléon: worshiping him at an alter hidden in her room like a pop star, like a saint…

Both help to humanise the spectacle and to anchor the audience in the recognisably real – there are plenty of jokes too. But Napoléon was super-natural and Gance’s film is suitably extra-ordinary.

Albert Dieudonné, Annabella and Nicolas Koline 
Whatever the rights or wrongs of the character or the odd blips in pacing and tone, ultimately we’ll never forget the moments of Napoléon’s tiny ship riding the waves of the storm as the Assembly erupts in conflict. Nor will we ever see anything like the closing sequence when the curtains are pulled back and the film on view triples in size. As Davis’ score reached new heights the story soared like Napoléon’s eagle over any refusal to accept it.

Simply magnificent.

Abel Gance as Saint-Just


  1. You encapsulate everything I feel about this film. I have seen it three times and was there on Saturday at the RFH. To me this is the greatest film ever made and we are so much luckier than most other generations to have seen it in shortened versions, not least because we have the incredible Carl Davis score to accompany it. I can't wait to see it again!

    1. It was the first time I'd seen it and even though I'd read about it, it still took me by surprise! It's difficult to compare it with any other film - an unique experience I would gladly repeat tomorrow! Thank you for your kind words. Best wishes. Paul

  2. A fine review. I saw this production when it was in Oakland, CA last year. Presented in these sort of A-list circumstances it is the most stunning film experience ever.

    1. I'd tend to agree with that - it's built for a big auditorium with a full orchestra: pretty much from its premier at the Paris Opera. A rich experience all round! Thank you. Paul