Pordenone 2001
feature by Sean Axmaker, 7 December 2001

Closing Night Event: The Third Full-Scale Restoration of Napoléon Vu Par Abel Gance

Which brings us to NAPOLÉON, all five-and-one-half  hours of Kevin Brownlow’s painstaking, year 2000, restoration. To be more precise, a steam engine brought us to Napoleon. Yes, the festival chartered an early twentieth-century steam engine to bring the festival audience from Sacile to Udine, where the Opera House become a cinema show palace for one night, with a full orchestra filling up the pit (they couldn’t have fit in Sacile’s Zancarno Theatre pit if they left their instruments behind and crowded in like commuters on a rush hour subway!).

While I could never say the trip was as good as the film, I wound up getting to know two of my temporary traveling companions. One was a young Japanese exchange student studying film in New York who told us, “You can’t see silent films in Japan.” The other was a seventy-year -old gentleman who produced documentaries for French television in the 1960s, employing the likes of Eric Rhomer and Jean Eustache. He was most proud, he said, of a documentary on Méliès that was narrated by Jean Renoir.

I came to Napoléon fresh and hungry for the experience. I had never seen the film in any incarnation, not even the version Coppola trimmed for release in the US in 1980. (The mind boggles: while Brownlow was scouring the world for missing footage to expand the film to its opening night grandeur, Coppola was cutting it down!) It was worth the wait.

Brownlow introduced the film with a playful (mis)quote from The Jazz Singer. I choose President Wilson’s (alleged) description of another landmark cinema epic, Birth of a Nation: “ It is like writing history with lightning.” Abel Gance's drama is still a vital piece of cinematic daring and invention, and an absolutely thrilling work of silent film drama. Like Birth of a Nation before it and Citizen Kane to come, Napoléon uses practically every technique developed at the time of its production, refining and in some cases redefining them in the process, and creating a visionary work of film.

Gance takes us from Napoléon’s childhood (where his brilliance as a strategist and his hypnotic ability to rouse troops is seen in the most exciting snowball fight in cinema history) to his first grand victory (appropriately enough for this festival, in Italy), a comparatively small part of military career. Along the way Gance paints the idealism and the corruption of the French Revolution and posits Napoléon as the great leader to set the dream back on course. At times it gets downright weird, as Napoléon visits the People’s Parliament on his way to take command of the failing Italy campaign to take inspiration from the ghosts of the revolution. Figures we have seen sell out their ideals for power suddenly become advocates for the people and entreat Napoléon to become the leader the revolution needs. The Italian campaign is not presented as the French army conquering a foreign country, but as the Corsican-born General's liberation of his homeland from invaders and inviting them to take part in the people’s dream. It’s one interpretation, I guess, yet the sheer power of the moment is enough to make such dubious themes seem utterly persuasive.

The history is questionable at times, despite the detailed footnotes that identify the veracity of key scenes and speeches, but the personality seems right. Gance’s Napoléon is a brilliant strategist and a charismatic General whose oratory skills can transform a whipped collection of soldiers into a fiery, fierce unit, yet off the battlefield this gloomy man with the hawk-like face and dark, hooded eyes is like some dour social outcast. Albert Dieudonné is amazing in the part, creating an intense, proud man burning with passion and drive that explodes when he’s given command to take the field. Among the casting highlights (and this is a huge cast even when you ignore the thousands of extras) are Antonin Artaud as Marat, Edmond Van Daele as a sinister looking Robespiere, Annabella as the young innkeeper’s daughter who loves Napoléon from afar, Gina Manes (who has the most amazing eyes) as the wily but frivolous social climbing flirt Josephine, and Gance himself as the handsome but devious Saint-Just.

The five-and-one-half-hour event was broken into four acts with three intermissions (one of them an hour long dinner break, surely as much for the musicians as for the audience), with each segment rising to a rousing climax. Between these peaks, Gance takes his time to tell his story, creating a strong emotional tone while he builds the film to one plateau after another, then rebuilds his momentum for the next. Every scene is rich in detail and invention, and his sophisticated and adventurous technique electrifies the drama. In one scene he flashes a montage of faces cut into single frames, and in another he turns a remembrance of events past into a lightning-fast recap of the film. It’s like a stack of photographs being shuffled, but the effect suggests a sudden burst of inspiration and clarity. I’d seen nothing like it in silent cinema before.

And finally there is the justly-renowned triptych finale. Gance saves it for the final act of the film. As Napoléon rallies the broken army the screen slowly widens then the picture suddenly becomes bigger than CinemaScope. It’s not mere spectacle that drives Gance’s use of this device, but an entire combination of things. He uses it symbolically, placing Napoléon’s face in the center of the screen as images of the landscape, the clouds, the men surround him. He uses it graphically, uses images as a kind of framing gilt for the center image of Napoléon. He uses it for scale, to show the enormity of the army against the landscape. And he uses it to show Napoléon’s command, his leadership, and his power. The sheer magnitude of thousands of men gathered in front of a majestic range of mountains, cheering and lining up for battle as the orchestra’s presence grows with a rousing sound that fills the theater, carries a dramatic charge that can’t be equaled.

Brownlow has been systematically replacing damaged and worn footage with superior material as it’s been uncovered and the film looks astounding. He’s remade the subtitles in the style of the original film and has tinted the film according to the original instructions using the original 1920s dye process, which brings a deep richness to the colors: the red hued battles burn, the blue nights are enveloped in nocturnal beauty, the yellow radiates the warmth of firelight. And as the film builds to a vigorous, epic climax (and the orchestra literally blares the Marseilles), it suddenly glows with the unmistakable blue, white and red of the tricolor French flag across the triptych to announce victory. It’s a moment of genius that marries the intellectual and the emotional with a sheen of sheer graphic beauty.

It was the only standing ovation of the entire film festival, and it was well deserved. I had waited throughout Pordenone 2001 for my masterpiece and got something so much more: the most electrifying cinema experience of my life.




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