Royal Festival Hall
30 November 2013
For once, a non-shit trailer, from here.
The greatest historical drama?
More accurately, the film should be called Young Napoléon, because although it lasts five and a half hours, it only reached his invasion of Italy, as commander of the French armies, not yet even First Citizen. Mind-bogglingly, writer-director Abel Gance intended this as the first of six films covering the central character’s life.
The ambition and scale of all this is staggering. The nearest comparison is with Peter Jackson’s six films adapted from Tolkein. And like Jackson, Gance is passionately in love with the visceral possibilities of a mobile camera and with spectacular set-pieces.
This kind of thrillingly edited experience is what Hollywood does best, in which case Gance should be its patron saint.
The film has been criticised as being proto-fascist, and it clearly is, but it is no moreso than many other artworks, especially those in the Romantic tradition. The ‘strong leader’ model of government has proponents even today among even within the ‘enlightened’ development community. And if Napoléon’s life cannot be presented as Romantic, whose can?
Gance and his team aren’t crude propagandists. The battle sequences are brutal, surely influenced by the 1914-18 European war. His hero takes on the mantle of the French Revolution but significantly doesn’t promise not to betray it. From the first sequences of a snowfight, Napoléon is presented as a Lord of Misrule, who not only thrives in apparent chaos but delights in it.
Combined with a well-constructed misanthropy, these characteristics make him a hero for his cruel, tumultuous times. And the film conveys these times with a gusto that works more effectively than naturalism.
Truffaut excitedly claimed that every shot contributed to furthering the story, the experience, that nothing was wasted. That is an impossible claim, but I did feel that at least every scene made a contribution, and was conscious throughout of momentum. The characters are so well known, their fate so well known, that the film makes no pretence of surprise; yet the tension is sustained throughout.
The only comparison I can make is with Shakespeare's Henry V, where the audience knows the outcome, shares the author's misgivings, yet still gets carried away by the glory and excitement of war and of 'history' unfolding.
The cast is phenomenal; it's as if they stepped from the late eighteenth century. There is no weak link.
The other, very prominent, ingredient in the success of this experience is Carl Davis' live score, a thundering postmodern mashup of composers from the period, most especially Beethoven. It's more brilliant than that suggests, however, for Davis gives the hero a recurring Brucknerian theme that seamlessly blends with the souped-up Beethoven.
The score, then, is also a masterpiece, and it was a privilege to hear Davis himself conduct a faultless Philharmonia. I wasn't sure he synched it fully with the images, but climaxes are hard to time. Should they come at the very end of a scene, or run over a little? I assume Davis achieved what he intended by opting for the latter.
I think every other critic is right. This was an unmissably cinematic experience.