Combustible Celluloid
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With: Albert Dieudonné, Gina Manès, Vladimir Roudenko, Edmond Van Daële, Alexandre Koubitzky, Antonin Artaud, Abel Gance, Suzanne Bianchetti, Marguerite Gance, Yvette Dieudonné, Philippe Hériat, Pierre Batcheff, Eugénie Buffet, Acho Chakatouny, Nicolas Koline
Written by: Abel Gance
Directed by: Abel Gance
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 332
Date: 04/07/1927

Napoleon (1927)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Napoleonic Code

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The French director Abel Gance occupies a specific place in film history. In some ways, he stretched the boundaries of the medium, but in other ways he lacked the reason to know when to stop. Indeed, he has been called a "genius without talent." Still, madness is a rare form of expression in cinema; it's too expensive of a medium, and with too many other people involved, to allow very many artists to run rampant. But when one does, it can be a useful and revealing look into the soul.

Over the past couple of years, two of Gance's earlier films, J'Accuse (1919) and La Roue (1922), had been released on DVD via Flicker Alley, and they're extraordinary works. They serve as a primer on just what Gance was capable of. But they are only the beginning. Neither quite prepares us for Napoleon.

Napoleon was famously re-released in 1981 in a four-hour version, with a live score composed by Carmine Coppola. Francis Ford Coppola was a producer in that restoration. In the 31 years since, the movie has been mostly unavailable to see, save for aged VHS and laserdisc releases once upon a time. Historian Kevin Brownlow has been working tirelessly behind the scenes, for perhaps his whole life, bringing the film back. Though Gance's finished version once clocked in at around nine hours, Brownlow's newest version runs five-and-a-half hours. It's an astonishing achievement; I've heard from people that sat through it once were eagerly going back for more.

It begins with an eye-opening sequence of Napoleon as a child, leading a tactical snowball fight at his school. Gance's camera revs up the sequence into something mythic, using explosive cutting and striking angles.

The movie continues with one classic sequence after another, each employing some radical technique to express an idea or emotion. The adult Napoleon (Albert Dieudonné) is present at the debut of "La Marseillaise." In this sequence Robespierre (Edmond Van Daële) wears dark glasses, and when he removes them, his face -- dark circles and slits for eyes -- looks the same.

Later, Napoleon escapes jail and hits the high seas during a storm. Gance cuts shots of Napoleon's ship tossed about with a camera swinging and bobbing above a crowd, making the people look like an ocean. There's also the midnight, rain-drenched battle of Toulon, the clerk that eats Josephine's file and saves her from the gallows, and the drunken, naked party at which Napoleon sternly plays chess (note: never invite Napoleon to a party). There's also the girl with a devastating crush on Napoleon, who creates a shrine to him. In one scene, she places a small Napoleon doll at one end of the room, and speaks to its full-sized shadow at the other.

Finally, the movie ends with its triptych: a piece-de-resistance, if there ever was one in any movie. As the film's final 20 minutes approach, the curtain parts, revealing two more screens to the left and right of the main one. The picture suddenly explodes into three. (Sadly, during the screening I attended, the triptych fell out of sync, which was apparently a not uncommon problem with this movie over the past century.) Even for those of us already used to seeing widescreen movies, it's as if you're seeing this amazing event for the first time.

All of this is an effort to capture the essence of Napoleon, using the essence of cinema; most of the memorable shots are not static: they feature some kind of technique (including hand-held, which is so prevalent now, but which required much heavier, more cumbersome cameras in Gance's day). Narratively, Gance's favorite moments are the ones in which some kind of history is made. He rarely focuses on small moments. Normally, this makes for tiresome biography, but in this case the form itself is equal to the subject. For Gance and for Napoleon, there are no small gestures.

This new version features a score by the great Carl Davis, which is mostly like a greatest-hits package of classical music, but it works. There were two performances with a live orchestra at Oakland's Paramount Theatre, March 24-25 and two more on March 31-April 1, 2012.

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