Napoleon (1927)

aka Napoléon vu par Abel Gance

2016 #184
Abel Gance | 333 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 + 4:1 | France / silent (English) | PG / G

Napoleon

At one point in time, arguments over rights made it seem unlikely you’d ever be able to see Abel Gance’s epic biopic of French leader Napoléon Bonaparte if you were a regular person not prone to attending all-day cinema screenings with a live orchestra and multiple intermissions. But a year ago this week things panned out so that the BFI were finally able to release it on Blu-ray. While a theatrical marathon is probably still the best way to see the film (if only for the full effect of the famed triptych finale), this release is certainly more convenient and accessible. Apparently it sold better than expected, too — I guess that’s what happens when you combine years of anticipation with being a worldwide-exclusive release of a film of this stature. It’s also a daunting film to review — for the aforementioned reasons, plus its length and its artistic importance. Nonetheless, here are what thoughts I had.

At 5½ hours, Napoleon is rather like a miniseries from the silent era — a comparison that feels more apt than ever in this age of binge-watching. It’s divided into four acts, each running anywhere from 49 to 114 minutes, but it could even be subdivided into further episodes: Napoleon’s schooldays; his observation of the French Revolution; his opposition to Corsica being sold to England; the siege of Toulon (which takes up all of Act 2 and is the best bit, in my opinion); the reign of terror (a half-hour section that barely features Napoleon); a chunk where he falls for and woos Josephine that plays like a rom-com; the invasion of Italy… Yet despite that length, the film doesn’t even reach the Napoleonic Wars. No wonder Gance wanted to do six movies — or six seasons, as we might interpret it today. (In the end, he went over-schedule and over-budget on this first film, covering just two-thirds of the story he’d intended and spending the budget for the entire series. I imagine I’d outrage some silent film fans/scholars if I called him the Peter Jackson of his day…)

Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon

Part of the fourth act is that triptych climax, a 21-minute sequence shot with three cameras side-by-side, and therefore designed to projected on three 1.33:1 screens side-by-side, to create a 4:1 widescreen image. It’s undeniably less powerful when rendered as a thin strip across a 16:9 television, suddenly shrinking the height of the image rather than suddenly tripling its width, but what other choice is there? (Well, if you’ve got three sets of equipment, the three-disc Blu-ray contains each screen full size, one per disc, so you could set it up yourself.) Even shrunk like that, the imagery in the sequence remains stunning. I bet the effect is marvellous when seen as intended. (There’s an alternate single-screen ending, which is quite different. It contains fundamentally the same ‘plot’, but there’s one whole new sequence, and the others are truncated or slightly rearranged. Worst of all, it loses the tricolour-inspired finale.)

Widescreen properly arrived when CinemaScope was invented in 1953, so Gance was about 25 years ahead of his time with that technique. It’s Napoleon’s most striking innovation, but the whole film shows off a surfeit of cinematic techniques: a wide variety of shot lengths (close-ups, medium, long, wide, etc, etc); tracks and pans, many of them fast; handheld photography, including what we’d now call ShakyCam; swaying back and forth, in and out of focus, or swinging over a large crowd; mounted on fast-moving vehicles, including dipping under the waves on a boat; in the thick of the action rather than observing it from a distance; multiple exposures and superimposition; animated maps to indicate Napoleon’s strategising; split screen; split-second impressionistically-fast cutting… and most of that’s found in just the first hour! Some of this is stuff that would still feel revolutionary when filmmakers were doing it 20, 30, even 40 years later. The fast-cut pulse-racing action scenes, like a horseback chase on Corsica, are not what you commonly expect from a silent movie, especially an ‘artistic’ one rather than a swashbuckler, say.

Epic

Lest you think a film of this vintage must be in black and white, Napoleon features a lot of tinting and toning, which works very well at times to create striking and meaningful imagery: golden sunlight illuminating the debut of La Marseillaise; the burning red of revolution forged in a furnace; a tumultuous purple ocean… Similarly, Carl Davis’ original score is great, helping to emphasise the emotion and lend the images a storytelling shape. Again, the sequence with La Marseillaise is a good example; a particularly effective tour de force. Davis makes good use of other familiar tunes for shorthand — there are variations on Rule, Britannia whenever the British are involved, for instance.

Making Abel Gance’s Napoleon was an epic undertaking, as was its decades-long reconstruction, as is the viewing experience (it is 5½ hours, after all). It may not be perfect for all of that immense running time (which does not merit adjectives like “indulgent” or “excessive” but is, nonetheless, long), but it is a monumental achievement in cinema that undoubtedly deserves full marks.

5 out of 5

That completes my reviews from 2016, finally.

The Up-to-Date Monthly Update for November 2016

The penultimate monthly update for 2016 has a higher-than-usual compliment of films from 2016. How up-to-date of me.


#172 Bridesmaids (2011)
#173 Love & Friendship (2016)
#174 Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016)
#175 The Pianist (2002)
#176 Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)
#177 Swiss Army Man (2016)
#178 Suicide Squad (2016)
#179 Arrival (2016)
#180 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
#181 The Deer Hunter (1978)
#182 Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
#183 Star Trek Beyond (2016)
#184 Napoleon (1927), aka Napoléon vu par Abel Gance
#185 Jason Bourne (2016)
Arrival

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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  • I watched 14 new films again this month (same as last). That makes this my 30th consecutive month with 10 or more new films.
  • As I mentioned, there were quite a few films from 2016. The total is ten, to be precise, or 71.4% of this month’s viewing. I’ll rate them when I review them, but scroll down to the Arbies for more about which I liked and disliked.
  • I spent three nights watching the 5½ hours of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, which made its hotly-anticipated Blu-ray debut this month. Still only counts as one film, though.
  • Making up for last month, I found time for two WDYMYHS films. Both are excoriating depictions of wartime: Roman Polanski’s story of life in the Warsaw ghettoes during World War 2, The Pianist; and Michael Cimino’s controversial take on the Vietnam war and its effect on (American) combatants, The Deer Hunter.



The 18th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
Quite a few enjoyable films this month, particularly among all those 2016 ones, but the one of the highest quality was definitely Denis Villeneuve’s venture into science-fiction drama, Arrival.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
Conversely, the weakest film this month also comes from 2016. I wanted to find the critics were wrong and side with the audiences who boosted it into the top 75 highest grossing films of all time, but no, Suicide Squad is a disappointing mess.

Longest Film of the Year (So Far)
I watched the ’59 Ben-Hur back in September, a film whose notoriously epic running time — 222 minutes, or 3¾ hours — would, most years, stand as unlikely to be surpassed. Thanks to the BFI, however, it has: Abel Gance’s silent epic Napoleon is a full 111 minutes longer at 333 minutes, aka 5½ hours.

Most Consistent Use of a Song
They’re back again: after 14 years and five films, Jason Bourne still ends with Moby’s Extreme Ways, just like every other film in the series. Never may it end.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
I confess to being slightly surprised by this month’s most-seen post. Besting several new releases (Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders was 2nd) and all-time favourites (Star Wars was 3rd), this month’s victor was my review of Denis Villeneuve’s arty psychological thriller Enemy.



Films that broke new ground rub shoulders with ones that settled into comfortable grooves, with everything from children’s movies about toys to adult movies about puppets.


As regular readers may have ascertained from the occasional reference I’ve made, I’m going to be away for a chunk of December. It’s not actually some big secret, it just wasn’t especially pertinent ’til now. We’re off on a family holiday to Hogwarts… in sunny Orlando, Florida. And all the other stuff, like Disney World and the Kennedy Space Center, all that jazz; but it was inspired by, as grown-up adult human beings, wanting to go to the Harry Potter theme parks. Something something for all ages, something something young at heart, etc.

So as this is posted, I’m currently… sat at home in the UK, because we fly tomorrow. Anyway, that means this blog will be quieter than normal for a bit — and as I’m away for 72% of the time it would cover, no advent calendar this year. I know I’m severely damaging your enjoyment of the holiday season, but it can’t be helped. Sorry. I’d love to tell you that I nonetheless have a mass of reviews scheduled to post so it’ll be like I’m not even gone, but I don’t. However, my 100 Favourites will continue as advertised (next up: #95 on Sunday), and there will be a couple of other reviews scattered in between, too. I may check in on comments from time to time as well, what with the connectivity of our modern world — so don’t be a stranger, y’hear?

It’ll undoubtedly have an effect on how many films I watch, though — will December destroy the 30-month run of 10+ films?!