Abel Gance’s Napoleon | Review by Pauline Kael

Pauline Kael explores the exuberant artistry of Abel Gance, particularly in his film Napoléon, lauding his ability to blend avant-garde filmmaking techniques with a melodramatic and romantic flair
Abel Gance’s Napoleon

In this review, Pauline Kael explores the exuberant artistry of Abel Gance, particularly in his film Napoléon, lauding his ability to blend avant-garde filmmaking techniques with a melodramatic and romantic flair that transforms stale, theatrical sensibilities into a mesmerizing cinematic experience. Despite some viewers finding his style excessively old-fashioned or disorienting, Kael appreciates Gance’s innovative use of camera work and rapid editing which intensifies the emotional impact, making the mundane exhilarating. The film, originally conceived as a six-hour epic to be shown over three nights, was significantly condensed, yet its grandeur and scope remain evident. Kael notes Gance’s penchant for grandiose, historical narratives where his passion for cinema often eclipses coherent storytelling, resulting in films that are visually striking yet thematically muddled. Despite these artistic contradictions, Kael sees Gance’s fervent dedication to the medium as a testament to his genius, blending 19th-century romanticism with pioneering film techniques, ultimately making Napoléon a spectacle of historical and theatrical exuberance.

* * *

by Pauline Kael

Abel Gance’s art is the art of frenzy, tumult, climax. He dashes toward melodramatic peaks and goes over the top. The result is overwhelmingly liter­ary, highfalutin, romantic, and foolish. His corn is purple—and it makes you gasp with pleasure because he achieves his effects by the most innovative means. He’s like an avant-garde De Mille. Gance has a nineteenth-century the­atrical sensibility, but he’s also obsessed with the most avant-garde film tech­niques, and he uses these advanced methods to overpower you emotionally. When he succeeds, you’re conscious of the humor of your situation—you ap­plaud, you cheer, because the exhilaration of his technique freshens the stale, trashy ideas, gives them a grand lunacy.

In Gance’s greatest film, Napoléon, which had its premiere at the Paris Opera in 1927, and was presented at Radio City Music Hall in a reconstructed version at the end of January and the beginning of February, Napoleon (Al­bert Dieudonne) is a Man of Destiny. Before that, when he’s still a boy (Vla­dimir Roudenko), he’s a Boy of Destiny. In the opening section, a fortress-like military school is in the distance, while in the foreground the courageous twelve-year-old Napoleon commands his outnumbered troops in a snowball fight. The camera seems to encompass miles of landscape, yet there’s so much activity within the shots, and the movement of the boys is so quick and darting and funny, that the effect is of your eyes clearing—of ev­erything becoming bright. Gance cuts from the long shots to closeups, and adds superimpositions, and then the cutting becomes fast and rhythmic, with Napoleon’s face flashing by in one frame of every four, and you realize that the principal purpose of this jazzy blinking is to give you a feeling for speed and movement—and for the possibilities of the medium. Gance doesn’t daw­dle; he starts off with pinwheels, sparks, madness.

Back in 1927, a lot of people must have got off the carrousel right there, saying, “It spins too fast, it makes me dizzy—and it’s stupid.” And maybe when Francis Ford Coppola, who served as impresario for the New York showings, opens the film more widely, some new people will. Years ago, when I was managing theatres, each time I ran an Abel Gance picture there were intelligent, highly educated people who would patiently explain to me how freakishly moldy the ideas were. I would impatiently respond that they weren’t allowing themselves the goofy rapture they might feel if they could just give over for a little while. I said that Gance’s technique transcended his ideas—that there was a fever in his work which came out of love of the medi­um itself, and that this love was the real subject of his movies. (I didn’t con­vince anybody.) The problem for these people wasn’t that Gance was avant-garde—it was that he was avant-garde and old-fashioned. This is a mix­ture that some moviegoers just can’t swallow.

Napoléon was originally made as a six-hour silent film, in color (the prints were tinted and toned by a dye process), and with sections designed to be run on a triple-width screen, by a process called Polyvision. Gance intended this work—thought to have been twenty-six or twenty-eight reels—to be shown in two-hour chunks on three successive nights. But even at the 1927 Paris opening (under the title Napoléon vu par Abel Gance) it was, instead, abridged and run in one night. The six-hour original played briefly, on a three-night basis, in eight European cities; then the film was chopped down into so many different versions (some of them reëdited by Gance himself) that it took the English filmmaker and film historian Kevin Brownlow years to assemble this new, relatively complete version. He estimates that twenty to forty minutes of footage are still missing; and a subplot of about fifteen min­utes has been cut for the new American opening. At Radio City, where the film was run at twenty-four frames per second (it was originally run at ap­proximately twenty frames per second), it lasted about four hours. (There’s a simulation of the original color for an instant at the very end.) Gance actually intended his six-hour movie, which ends with the young Napoleon leading his army in Italy, to be just the first (Première Époque: Bonaparte) in a cycle of six Napoleonic films.

The opening “Youth of Napoleon” section includes the revenge of Napo­leon’s enemies—the boys who have lost the fight in the snow. The subtitles tell us that both the masters and the pupils feel an antipathy to this proud, fierce child, and that his only consolation is his pet eagle; after the fight his enemies let the eagle out of its cage, and the bird flies into the night. Not knowing which boys are responsible, Napoleon goes from bed to bed, sys­tematically challenging every one of them; he takes on the whole dormitory.

The brawl turns into a pillow fight (the ancestor of the celebrated lyric, feath­ery sequence in Vigo’s Zero for Conduct), and as he fights them all and the feathers start to fly the screen divides into four separate shots, then into six, then into nine. And with all nine images in motion the screen becomes a fan­tasia of boys, pillows, feathers. There’s so much movement that the separate images dissolve in the whirling mass. The fight is broken up by the masters, who punish only Napoleon, sending him to spend the night outdoors; he has fought with honor, though, and as he huddles alone in the cold his eagle re­turns to him. The audience applauds the gaudy, romantic inevitability of the bird’s return. (The eagle will be Napoleon’s totem throughout the picture.) This early section has a charm that is reminiscent of Mack Sennett and Chap­lin, and even the small touches are likable. During the snow fight, a scullion who admires Napoleon’s courage warns him that his enemies are putting rocks in their snowballs. After the pillow fight, a stinky little boy (one of the two who let the eagle out) lies snug in his bed; he snores, and a bit of down puffs out of his mouth.

Gance works directly on our senses. When images that are no more than a few frames long are intercut repeatedly in a fixed pattern, there’s a flickering, blinding effect, like a strobe. And when he divides the screen into multiple images, so that we see seething forms, he’s obviously trying to affect us at a subconscious level. I think Gance always meant to be a prophet showing mankind the Way, but he’s a prophet only in terms of movie techniques. As a thinker, he is essentially a fantasist, a mythmaker enslaved by his own school­boy gush.

It’s amusing to see the boy Napoleon treated as a Genius, but in the next sections—Napoleon and the French Revolution, and then the Italian Cam­paign—when the young man Napoleon is treated as the embodiment of the French Revolution, you know you’re in the grip of a crazy. There are certain subjects that pose special hazards for great moviemakers, and they are just the ones that attract them the most: the Promethean conquerors, the mad kings, the Men of Destiny, the visionaries. The imaginative moviemaker knows that there are no limits to what is possible in the movie medium, and belief in his own omnipotence rises in him like sap. Imperial moviemakers can’t settle for less than the imperial subjects that have no clearly defined lim­its. (It’s no accident that Welles wanted to do Heart of Darkness or that Ku­brick wanted to do a Napoleon.) The trap of these subjects is not merely that they grow to excessive length, that they become misshapen, or are unfin­ished because funds run out, or that they get mutilated, but that the movie­maker, who begins with a sense of holy mission, winds up not knowing what he meant to say, and the scale of his epic makes the utopian humanistic mes­sage he settles for look puny. There’s an incoherence that seems almost inte­gral to visionary epics: the bravura techniques have everything to do with exploring the medium, but they have nothing to do with the filmmaker’s “statement” about pacifism or revolution or tolerance or a world nation. There’s a kind of Pyrrhic poetry about Coppola’s having put up more than a quarter of a million dollars to reopen this film in Radio City Music Hall, and with his father, Carmine Coppola, in the pit, conducting the sixty-piece Amer­ican Symphony Orchestra. Back around 1920, it was D. W. Griffith who ar­ranged for the American opening of Gance’s 1919 film J’Accuse.

Gance’s life has been a tragedy of waste. When Napoléon opened, he was only in his mid-thirties, and he has spent the rest of his life (he is ninety-one now) mainly on commercial subjects and unfulfilled grand projects. This can­not be completely blamed on tightfisted, shortsighted businessmen. The fact is that most of Gance’s epic ideas reek of nineteenth-century grandiloquence. He isn’t rounded (as, say, Renoir was). His films are superb in glimpses or in sequences, but they’re not unified by simple emotion, as Griffith’s epics were. They’re held together by obsession, by fervor. When Gance tries for simple, ordinary feelings, he’s usually at his worst. It isn’t that he treats the simple moments as filler and pays little attention to them but that he makes some­thing kitschy and embarrassing of them. He layers them with obvious ironies, whole-hog patriotism, facetiousness. For him, common experience is comic relief. In Napoléon, during the Terror two government clerks try to save peo­ple they like from the guillotine by chewing and swallowing their dossiers, but one of them keeps gagging. Josephine’s son (about twelve) sits in a room where Napoleon is courting his mother, and the kid enjoys every minute of it. (That’ll be the day!) When Napoleon marries Josephine, the wedding cere­mony is comically brief. (Napoleon is a man in a hurry.)

What Gance offers us is not merely a Napoleon without politics; his is a divine Napoleon. Gance’s Man of Destiny has a mesmeric gaze. When Napo­leon meets with any opposition, Dieudonne’s eyes light up like the eyes of the kids in Village of the Damned. The power of Napoleon’s gaze was fa­mous, but this is a horror-film comedy routine. When he turns his piercing stare on them, rioting crowds back away, and even unruly generals do his bidding. Others don’t need to be glared at: characters such as Fleuri (Nicolas Koline), the admiring scullion who later becomes an innkeeper, and his daughter, Violine (the lovely, teen-age Annabella), turn up from time to time, so they can symbolize the good common people and worship Napoleon from afar.

There is no doubt that Gance takes a mystical view of his hero. When Napoleon attacks the British, and the messy battle goes on for seventy-two hours and ends in hand-to-hand combat in rain and mud, a subtitle an­nounces: “He is in the thick of fire. He is in his element.” (Some of the night fighting scenes were originally in blue, others in red.) Everything is explained by “fate.” Before Napoleon and Josephine have met, he is a young officer in the street outside a fortune-teller’s shop, while she is inside being told that she will be a queen. Gance is shameless: everything is foretold, ordained, or revealed in a hideous presentiment. It’s clear that Gance conceived of his huge cycle of films as a glorification of Genius. His hyperbolic romanticism knows no bounds: in one scene Napoleon stands alone on a peak overlook­ing the ocean, and a subtitle tells us that Ocean is his friend and they meet as equals. When Gance tries to “humanize” this hero, he shows him embar­rassed and fumbling in his courtship of Josephine. We come away from a Griffith epic, such as Intolerance, or even Orphans of the Storm (which is also set in the French Revolution), with a feeling for the characters, and a sense of pleasure in the whole story, and memories of small, surprising mo­ments. We come away from Napoléon exulting in Gance’s extraordinary in­ventiveness and spirit. In the same sense that his Napoleon is the Revolution, Gance is the film we have been watching.

He can be a great show. When Napoleon is in Corsica, with a price on his head, he takes down the French flag, which he believes the Corsicans are un­worthy of; he jumps from a building onto a horse and, clutching the flag, rides away to escape a large group of horsemen pursuing him. Suddenly we’re in a Western chase, but in this Western the camera is more interested in the movement of the horses’ legs than in the possibility that the posse might catch up to the hero. (For some of the inserts, Gance strapped the camera to the back of a horse.) Pursued all the way to the sea, Napoleon hops into a dinghy and unfurls the tricolor for a sail. It’s a piece of flamboyance that makes one laugh and applaud. What follows is even higher on the hog: A sirocco comes up, and the little boat is flung about in the splashing waves—and we’re flung about, too. Gance built an underwater camera, which, he said, he placed at the level of the waves, so the image would not be “that seen by a person looking at the waves, but rather that of one wave seen by another.” This storm at sea is intercut with the political storm at the National Convention in Paris, with Danton orating and Robespierre crushing the Gi­rondists. In order to produce a parallel sense of vertigo from the waves of the surging crowd, Gance mounted the camera on a pendulum, which swung over the extras’ heads. It’s a freak sequence: a forced metaphorical connec­tion between two phenomena, and an essentially verbal metaphor besides. It’s obvious and hokey, yet the effect is smashingly modern, with the swaying camera whipping us right into the movement of the crowd, and back and forth, in ever quicker shots. And then the two storms are superimposed. What we admire is, of course, Gance’s zingy virtuosity.

In the first Gance picture I ever saw, his 1936 sound film Un Grand Amour de Beethoven, released here as The Life and Loves of Beethoven, the sequence of Beethoven going deaf was invested with so much passion that it was almost painful. Beethoven (the magnificent, plug-ugly Harry Baur) couldn’t understand what was happening to him. Charging outside, with his big blunt face stricken, he could see the bells ringing, see the blacksmith at work, see the noisy washerwomen. But he couldn’t hear anything—and we shared the silence with him. Then we heard a sudden pealing of bells, and all the other sounds that he was henceforth denied. The sequence was so emo­tionally devastating that when he swung a clenched fist at the camera as he died, his anger seemed completely just. Gance’s 1922 La Roue has a compara­ble passage about the onset of its railwayman-protagonist’s blindness. (The Russian giants of the twenties studied a print of Gance’s original thirty-two-reel version, and this film’s lightning-fast montages of engines and pistons, rails and wheels, were probably a chief influence on Russian montage.) Gance’s 1937 sound remake of his anti-war film J Accuse ends with a se­quence so overpowering that it obliterates the rest of the film. In this finale, the war dead rise to confront the living; the mutilated, the crippled get up and march toward us. In George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead, the onslaught of the dead is used for a gruesome horror effect; in Gance it’s a nightmare miracle, and awesome. The soldiers just keep marching toward us—a vast army of the dead filling the screen.

Gance is a master of a certain kind of theatrical rhetoric; he must think in tropes. In Napoléon, at the climactic moments the eagle appears. It lights on the topmost part of a ship carrying Napoleon, it settles on a pole in the camp where he’s sleeping after his victory over the English at Toulon, and, at the end, the eagle spreads its wings across the three screens.

All through Napoléon, you can see why Gance had to invent the Polyvision wide-screen process (which was the predecessor of Cinerama and Cinema- Scope)1. Whenever there’s a mob onscreen, the action seems to be pushing against the sides of the frame. That square frame is like a straitjacket to Gance: you feel that he can’t accept it and work within it—that he has to push it wid­er. I never got this sense of confinement from Griffith (who often used a flex­ible frame—blacking out the top and bottom for a proportionately wider image, or blacking out the sides for a narrow vertical image) or from Eisenstein or the other Russians. Gance needs a wider canvas because he just natu­rally tries to encompass more than the square can hold. Though he has a dazzling compositional sense, the halls with crowds seated or jumping to their feet look compressed and static. When, at the climax, Napoleon address­es his army in Italy and the screen opens up to triptych width, the squeezed look disappears and Gance’s compositional style seems, at last, fulfilled. (At Radio City, three synchronized projectors were used, though something like this effect can—and probably will—be accomplished by putting the triple­width section on 70-mm. film.) Napoleon reviews his troops, and we see the whole damned army stretched out over the landscape. It’s like a photograph­ic map—the country is laid out in front of us. We see the encampments, the tents, the troops, and Napoleon himself, high on a peak, addressing them. And there is an effect that suggests 3-D (which Gance also experimented with while making this picture): several horses and riders cross in front of the vista and seem to ride right into the theatre. This concluding section is a triumph: the three images are sometimes one continuous panoramic view; at other times the center panel is complemented by the wings in a contrapuntal effect, or all three are different. And the extravagance is compounded by two, some­times three, sets of superimpositions. (There were also three earlier, brief uses of the triptych width in Napoléon, but apparently Gance, despairing be­cause it didn’t seem that anyone would ever be interested in the footage, de­stroyed it.) Gance, the visionary who reached out to bring more and more into his frames (some scenes have as many as six thousand extras), must have felt a strong temperamental affinity with Napoleon, the visionary con­queror. Gance—he appears here, with gold loops in his ears, in full-screen closeups, as the handsome, lordly Saint-Just—has often been described as looking like an eagle.

One of the reasons that Napoléon failed with the public may be that Gance works on such a large scale that he uses his performers for their physiogno­mies—their look—rather than for any contribution they might make to the film as actors. We see them in luminous, expressive closeups—faces abstract­ed from the action—and we see them in long shots. But there is little of the middle distance, where we might get to know the characters they’re playing. We don’t find out what the Revolution is about or what Danton and Robes­pierre stand for. The kind of mind that thinks in tropes doesn’t dramatize par­ticulars. The crowds at the National Convention don’t represent anything to us—they’re just people milling around. They’re illustrations of history. When Antonin Artaud, who plays Marat, appears, the Radio City audience applauds him for who he is; his acting wouldn’t call up any cheers. Artaud gives a hy­peractive, bulging-eyed performance (though he was gentle and superbly modulated in Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc). The thin, elegant Pierre Batcheff (he was the cyclist in the Buñuel-Dali 1928 Un Chien Andalou) plays Josephine’s lover, General Hoche; he has almost nothing to do, but he does make you wonder why Josephine tosses him over for Nappy, who is still just an intense, glowering little nerd. Dieudonne (he looks like Rod Stewart on a stormy day) has presence, but he seems much older than Napoleon was at this time (all of twenty-six), and, with his pale eyes and thin, dark-lipsticked mouth, he’s rather off-putting. This Napoleon may be fire and eagle and all, but we never get a sense of the man, or of the tactician, either. All we know is that his will is steely, his military plans are brilliant, he loves his mother, and he’s on a divine mission—he’s going to spread the French Revolution to other countries by conquering them. Gance doesn’t seem to notice anything odd about the idea of bringing self-respect to people by de­feating them in war.

There is a truly disingenuous sequence: Gance attempts to purify Napo­leon’s plans by a supernatural device. After the rush-rush wedding and a hur­ried night with his bride, Napoleon, at dawn, heads for Italy. (He allows himself only three months for its conquest.) But on the way, just after taking leave of Josephine, he stops at the empty Convention hall. It is inhabited by the phantoms of the guillotined Revolutionary leaders—Danton and the oth­ers. These dead speak to him: They tell him that the Revolution cannot pros­per without a strong leader, and they ask him to be that leader. They tell him that the Revolution will die if it doesn’t expand beyond France, and that he must spread it. And he solemnly promises these apparitions that he will liber­ate oppressed peoples and create a united Fatherland. (He was racing off to “liberate” Italy anyway, so it’s rather funny that he reacts as if the dead had just laid this burden on him.)

Josephine (Gina Manes), who carries a lapdog, is a tough, worldly tart. Her brutal nature may perhaps show too clearly on the outside—she has a hard jaw, as if she’d been chewing on things too long. When Napoleon’s face is in the center panel, with a globe of the world on a side panel, and then Jose­phine’s face, in all its leering glitter, is superimposed on that globe, we are supposed to see that his pure dream of a universal state is being corrupted. She is the temptress who comes between him and his Destiny. The film ends with Napoleon still triumphant, though there are mystic forebodings of de­feats to come. The strange thing about the structure is that, as everything has been set up, Napoleon should win out over his enemies. There is so little sense of political or military reality in this film that the only way Napoleon’s defeats can be prefigured is by mystic hints and Josephine’s enigmatic, dirty smile. It’s as if Christ were done in by Eve.

At Radio City, Napoléon had the right setting and a great audience. I had seen the triptych section set up with three projectors and three little screens in the auditorium of the San Francisco Museum of Art in the forties, and the group of us there were wild-eyed with excitement about what we saw. We were only the lunatic fringe, though. At Radio City, there were as many peo­ple in the audience as there were on the screen, and for a spectacle film de­signed to work on mass emotions a big screen and a crowd make an enormous difference. During the two-storms sequence, you could feel a third storm—waves of audience response. It’s inspiriting to be in a large audience so knowledgeable about movies that it reacts with surprise and excitement to each unusual technical device, and with enjoyment to the romantic flour­ishes. In the twenties and thirties, people were rebelling against the nine­teenth-century sentiments expressed here (and talkies had brought in a new realism), and in the forties if the film had played to a large crowd it might have appeared obscene. But the picture’s flowery pannationalism just seems a curiosity and a camp now. This could be the time for Gance, because there are so many more people now who recognize what he was doing technically. It could even be the right time for Gance the size freak, because after the years of TV and tiny art houses you begin to feel how much size matters. The score that Carmine Coppola conducted—and composed, with some ac­knowledged borrowings from Berlioz and others—helped the film enor­mously; over the years, I have seen Napoléon in several versions, and it never moved as fluently as it did with this music. I’ve never heard the score that Honegger wrote for the 1927 opening, or the new score that Carl Davis pre­pared for the London showings last year, but this one has pulse and spirit. (It’s an incredible workout for the orchestra, and for the conductor, who must be close to seventy—four hours of almost continuous playing.) There was only one spot where I thought the synchronization of the score and the images failed: the organ interlude during the Battle of Toulon episode. An organ doesn’t have the right sound for battle, or for councils of war, either. And even after Napoleon called for “Order, calm, silence” the organist was rushing on excitedly.

If a huge, hip audience can do wonders for a film, it can also expose blun­ders: when Charlotte Corday comes to murder Marat, she is ushered into the room where he is soaking in his bathtub; a curtain is drawn (as if we were at a theatrical performance), and then it’s pulled back after he has been stabbed. Stage and screen conventions have got confused here, and the audi­ence broke into laughter. (Marat’s death is staged as a “living picture”—an exact re-creation of the famous painting.)

After the Terror, the subtitles inform us, there is a reaction of joy, and people celebrate at balls. The one that Napoleon goes to is the Victims’ Ball, attended by those who have narrowly escaped the guillotine or lost relatives to it. Gance has shown a fine eye for beautiful women throughout, but sud­denly he seems to have shifted centuries, because the sparkling-eyed beauties at this party carry on like flappers at a twenties artists’ ball. The men are prop­erly costumed, but the women are in the kind of dresses that go with cloches. Two of them sit in a swing high above the crowd, wearing only little wisps of clothing; others dance, bare-legged and bare-bottomed, with, here and there, a breast exposed. (This jazzy revel is reminiscent of the cubistic Charleston montage in Lubitsch’s 1926 So This Is Paris, except there are no black musi­cians.) Watching this twenties orgy during the French Revolution, I thought it might have been Gance’s gesture toward his backers—an obligatory scene, like the car chases that have been forced on Hollywood directors in recent years. But then I remembered (and found) a still of a shindig from Gance’s 1935 Lucrezia Borgia, starring Edwige Feuillere, which I’d saved because the garlanded maidens dancing semi-nude had such a howling thirties look. May­be Gance goes into little time warps.

Napoléon is full of aesthetic contradictions, and seeing it with an audi­ence that enjoys them adds to the picture’s freshness. When you watch a Gance film, you’re seeing a film made by a man who was born in the nine­teenth century (in 1889) and who mastered a twentieth-century art while re­maining a romantic dandy of the past. Gance is still ahead of most film artists, yet he has always been behind movie audiences. He’s a double anachronism, a living time warp. This man, who sold his first scripts in 1909, once wrote a play for Sarah Bernhardt, and his thinking (if his later movies, such as the 1964 Cyrano et DArtagnan, accurately express it) hasn’t changed. But he’s such a passionate wizard that in his hands the old declamatory conventions sometimes become iconographic right before your eyes. There are masters whose technique is invisible (Renoir, De Sica, Satyajit Ray), so that what you respond to is the stories and the people. And there are masters of bravura, such as Gance and Welles, who often seem wildly “cinematic” because they are essentially theatrical. This isn’t a negative observation: it may be that they love movies so much because they loved the theatre.

The New Yorker, February 16, 1981


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