“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…
|Saint-Just, Robespierre, Danton and Marat|
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.
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|
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|
|Abel Gance as Saint-Just|