I’m proud to be bringing people back to the cinema, in an age when people will happily watch Lawrence of Arabia on their mobile phones. Napoleon is pure cinema, and cinema was designed for sharing. There’s something about the way it was shot that makes it like no other. I can’t tell you how many people, having seen our restoration, have said: “That was the greatest experience I have ever had in a motion picture theatre.” Kevin Brownlow, How we made – Napoleon, theguardian.com
My eyes and ears are still adjusting back to normality. Yesterday’s screening of Abel Gance’s Napoléon at the Royal Festival bombarded the senses and befuddled the brain. It was not, as you may have been warned, a marathon. The five-hours-forty-minutes running time appears to go by in a flash, powered along by Carl Davis’s invigorating orchestral score. I would happily watch it all again tomorrow and the next day, and for as many times as it took to get to the bottom of its many mysteries.
Because despite the pleasures it offers, this is not an easily digestible film. Napoléon’s open-ended structure, which closes just as Bonaparte’s career takes flight, doesn’t help. It’s also a film of unexpected variety, and yes, unevenness, if only because its very best sequences are impossible to match. Immense but not immaculate, Napoléon is at times a masterpiece and at others a sketchbook of enthralling, intricate designs. The magic is that Gance’s ambition is every bit as exciting as his achievements. After just one, eagerly anticipated screening, I may be addicted.
I’m not going to attempt to write a review proper this morning, but I did want to give a flavour of the film, the event and the audience’s reaction to it.
Napoléon is a biopic that pairs the grandeur of its subject’s work and vision with its own cinematic innovations. You will have read about the triptychs that close the movie (more of which later) but perhaps you’ve also heard about the flash cuts, superimpositions, multiple exposures and the cameras thrown, whirled, mounted on horseback. The first act of the film, in this restoration by Kevin Brownlow, contains much of its experimentation and bravado. It follows Napoléon as an unhappy alienated schoolboy, and his disastrous return as a young man to his native Corsica. The snowball fight that opens the film, in which Bonaparte and nine chums strategise their way to a crucial victory over 40 of their peers, led by a particularly unscrupulous pair of urchin villains, is a beauty – staged as if were the culmination of a bloody war. Likewise the frenzy of a pillow fight in the dorm. Vladimir Roudenko as the young Bonaparte is marvellous too – showing far more pluck and passion than Albert Dieudonné in the adult role. There is pathos and humour here, as throughout the film, but Napoléon excels at bombast, exemplified by the sequence that closes the act: Bonaparte, lost at sea in a boat with a Tricolour sail, thrillingly cross-cut with uprisings at the Paris Convention.
So far, so much like what I expected from Napoléon, although more exhilarating that I hoped it could be. What I wasn’t prepared for was a sudden shift in tone, as the second act lingered on the battlefield – crowded, red-tinted frames of bloody combat. Memorable details: a drowning man’s hand thrashing the in the mud, a cannon-cart rolling over a fallen soldier’s ankle. This typifies the movie’s take on history: grim faces, skewiff hairdos, grit and squalor. The film punctuates Bonaparte’s moody middle-distance staring and eloquent intertitle speeches with a mode one might call grotesque realism – whether it’s the exposed flesh of dancers at a ball, the tattered foot bindings of the Italian army or Napoleon’s cardboard boots disintegrating in the gutter, this is visceral stuff. And a note on realism: Napoléon footnotes all bona fide incidents and quotations with a “(Historical)” label on the relevant title. Not quite as clunky as it sounds, several “based on a true story” films would benefit from a similar device. Who knew that a clerk ate Josephine’s accusatory dossier to save her from the guillotine? Or that Nelson wanted to sink Napoléon’s “suspicious” boat on his return from Corsica, decades before Trafalgar?
After the long dinner interval, and much inevitable analysis and debate, the third act proved the most controversial. While the sequences exploring the Reign of Terror, from the ructions in the Convention, to brutality of the authorities (including Gance himself as a rather glamorous Saint-Just) were universally admired, many audience members I spoke to were of the “Not tonight, Josephine” persuasion. The courtship between Bonaparte and Josephine is strange, truncated and slightly unsettling. An impressionistic montage of their previous meetings suggest Napoléon’s passion for his lady, but a queasy sequence in which he embraces a globe superimposed with her face shows that his motivations may not be entirely romantic, with Josephine just another territory to be conquered as he builds his empire. The shadow of this bizarre love story is Violine, the young girl infatuated with Napoléon, who insinuates her way into Josephine’s household, imitates her dress and keeps a shrine to the General above her bed. Hardly edifying, but I found these glimpses of the warrior’s homelife fascinating, and enjoyed the tension between these awkward scenes and the single-mindedness of his military strategies.
Seven hours after first taking our seats, we assembled for the finale. I freely admit that my lower lip had already wobbled as the titles rolled at the start of the film (“This is it! I’m watching Napoléon!”) but according to my sources, Napoléon was at its most most Napoléon in its last 20 minutes. Not long to wait. In fact, the final hour breezes by, as Napoléon sets out to conquer Italy (writing passionate love letters to the missus in his carriage even while he dispatches orders to his riders). The troops are dilapidated, and morale is as low as funds, but the mountain landscapes are incredible. So, as Napoléon rallies his men with more fine words, it’s just a matter of time before the screen grows, the orchestra soars and Gance’s Polyvision finale kicks in. The panorama shots, after five and a half hours of Academy Ratio, are enough to send anyone into a spin, but when Gance designs each frame individually, multiplying his montage techniques, using colour and superimposition and animation, the the effect is truly astonishing. And at the centre of it all, Dieudonné’s graven face, beneath that famous hat, surveying his own triumph. It’s a monument to patriotism of course, but in the RFH last night, our awe at the work of Gance, of Brownlow and of Davis, rekindled our devotion not to a country but to the cinematic arts. A magnificent monstrosity, Napoléon offers refined beauty, raw thrills and a thousand and one reasons to adore the cinema.
“There’s nothing that matches the experience of going along to see it. It’s incredible. Word has gotten round: this is fun, this is extraordinary.” Carl Davis, How we made – Napoleon, theguardian.com