Monday, September 24, 2012
Abel Gance's Napoléon is an epic biography of the famed military leader and Emperor of France, a film as grand and ambitious as its subject, as indicated by the fact that this five-hour masterpiece was only the first of a projected six films that would have chronicled the entirety of Napoléon's life. Gance never made the subsequent films, but this overwhelming, technically stunning and passionate work — encompassing Napoléon's boyhood, his experiences during the French Revolution, and his invasion of Italy — is more than enough, an unforgettable monument of the cinema.
It is certainly one of the most innovative films of the silent era, with Gance restlessly inventing and combining multiple techniques, pouring everything into the film. Even before the famous climactic final reel, for which Gance created a widescreen three-camera shooting technique he called Polyvision, the film is a virtual catalog of everything that was possible in the silent cinema, and probably at least a few things that weren't possible before Gance. The camera shakes and sways, freed from static framings, and the film's approach to montage, controlling pacing by periodically building up to bursts of frenzied cutting and layered multiple exposures, is practically modern.
Gance opens the film with an extraordinary 10-minute-plus sequence that introduces the boy Napoléon's (Vladimir Roudenko) battlefield leadership in microcosm in the midst of a schoolboy snowball fight. It's a technically exhilarating sequence that, in addition to profiling the hero's character at an early stage of his development, introduces the sheer bravura virtuosity of Gance's filmmaking, with an increasingly frenetic barrage of shaky handheld shots, graceful traveling shots, and frantic montage that builds into a nearly abstract, hyper-modern assault on the senses. At the height of the battle's intensity, Gance even divides the screen into multiple smaller images, finally arriving at a nine-panel grid with the multiple images conveying the confusion of the battle scene, presaging the three-panel widescreen of the finale.
Gance seems to be consistently aiming for techniques that allow him to convey more information than the senses can take in at once, to use visceral fast cutting and superimpositions to create images that are felt as much as seen. The aesthetics of the snowball fight — the jittery handheld camera and speed-blurred shots that last only a second or two before being replaced by another disorienting snippet of action — prefigure modern action cinema and must have been positively jaw-dropping when the film was new. Gance later applies a similar style to the actual battles of Napoléon's military career, as the young officer (played by Albert Dieudonné as an adult) steadily climbs up the ranks and proves his prowess with his brilliant strategy and bold daring. The battles are all smoke and cannon-fire and messy scrabbling in the mud with swords and bayonets. While Napoléon and the other officers plan everything out in advance via geometric shapes laid out on maps, representing opposing armies, the actual fighting is frenetic, often with Napoléon himself standing stoically in the midst of the chaos, presenting a strong profile to the camera.
Gance spends a substantial portion of the film on the French Revolution, with his hero on the fringes, watching and waiting for his moment of glory. The "three gods" of the Jacobins — Danton (Alexandre Koubitzky), Marat (Antonin Artaud), and a creepy, sunglass-wearing Robespierre (Edmond van Daële) — are shown stirring up crowds with their revolutionary rhetoric, perhaps inspiring the younger Napoléon. The peak of this segment is the sequence where Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle leads the National Convention in a stirring rendition of his song, "La Marseillaise," soon to become the French national anthem. The sequence builds to a stirring patriotic fervor, culminating with a rapid-fire barrage of shots lasting barely a second, each flickering shot a closeup of a face in the crowd, their mouths open in song, shouting and singing their pride in their country and their revolutionary zeal. One can practically hear the song, and would even if it weren't frequently referenced and quoted in Carl Davis' score, so visceral is Gance's staging of this moment, daring to make an emotional musical moment so important to the film.
What's crucial here is that Gance's technical mastery never amounts to mere showing-off. The film is dazzling in the array of techniques and formal devices it employs, but its inventions are always intimately married to the story, to the emotions and ideas that Gance wishes to communicate. As Napoléon makes his perilous ship journey back from Corsica, Gance cuts back and forth from the stormy seas, tossing the ship on the waves, to the debates in the National Convention in Paris. As the storm worsens, Gance further parallels the two sequences by making the Parisian scenes rock and sway with the same tempo as the waves, the camera swooping and soaring. It seems as if the whole building is rocking, buffetted by the storm of history, bringing Napoléon back to his destiny even as the violence and paranoia of the French Revolution increasingly shakes up the new government, making it as unstable as the stormy seas that the future Emperor is braving to return to the center of power.
The film's second half documents Napoléon's imprisonment, his sidelining, and then his sudden ascension to a position of great power, leading an army to conquer Italy. Gance's Napoléon, for much of the film, is a surprisingly shabby and ordinary man, living in poverty, puttering around in his cold and ramshackle apartment, struggling to cook on an uncooperative stove and papering over his broken windows with a map of Italy to keep the rain out. These scenes of the future great man's prosaic struggles serve as a contrast to the film's epic mythologization of this famed figure. The same goes for the scenes establishing Napoléon's romance with Joséphine de Beauharnais (Gina Manès). There's not much room for romanticism, sensuality or sexuality in Gance's sweeping chronicle of historical forces in motion, but those softer emotional currents are embodied in both Joséphine and Violine (Annabella), who admires Napoléon from afar and even builds a shrine to him in her room.
The film's sensual streak reaches its apex in a grand ball celebrating the end of the Jacobins' Reign of Terror, at which Napoléon and Joséphine, who'd crossed paths briefly several times throughout the film, meet once again. When Napoléon sees her, Gance edits in a sensuous, associative montage of the woman's previous appearances, reinforcing the way she weaves through the film and through the hero's thoughts. This party, after the violence and horror of the years under Robespierre and Saint-Just (who's played with glowering intensity by Gance himself), is a release of long-suppressed sensual feeling, and Gance lets that sexual energy flow in the shaky, visceral images of women dancing in various states of undress, images of startling eroticism in a film that is otherwise concerned largely with far more abstract and less personal ideas and feelings.
This detour into romance and personal drama provides a brief intermission in the film's second half, before the film ends with Napoléon's triumphant charge into Italy at the head of his new army. At this point, Gance expands the frame using his innovative three-camera Polyvision system, giving the final fifteen minutes of the film a stunning grandeur that truly conveys the scope of the director's vision. Gance uses this revolutionary technique for both panoramic vistas — albeit imperfect ones with visible seams — and triptychs of images, often framing central images of Napoléon with columns of marching soldiers or stormy, dramatic skies on either side of him. Several times, Gance even uses the triple images for sensory-overload collages that juxtapose the conquering general with images of his bride back at home, his soldiers, maps of his military plans, and other layered images, suggesting Napoléon's divided thoughts as well as the frenzy of battle.
Gance's epic is one of the greatest masterpieces of the silent era, an indisputable technical achievement that summed up everything the young medium was capable of at the time, and which remains bracing, thrilling, visceral, and modern-feeling even over 80 years later. It's a work of potent hagiography that expresses its sense of historical scale in the quality and vigor of its images, using the full breadth of the cinema's expressive potential in order to get at the towering stature and importance of this complicated figure.