Impossible Is Not French
November 15, 2016 § Leave a comment
Nothing prepares you for Abel Gance’s Napoleon, whether or not you’ve seen other 1920s masterworks of silent, modernist cinema, the likes of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, or Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. From its dazzling opening scene, a snow fight at the Brienne Military Academy, an exercise in strategy and siege craft where the young Bonaparte first distinguishes himself, it seizes us wholly into its world. Snow was of course to be Napoleon’s downfall, but the film ends long before the retreat from Moscow in 1812. Here, in 1783, it makes for beautiful cinematography, a triumph of monochrome, where subtle greys and rich blacks take shape against ice-white entrenchments, and the siege itself, schoolboy play at its most serious and ferocious, develops with the fast cutting and mobile camera work that give the whole film its staggering dynamism.
The next set piece is the dormitory pillow fight that must have influenced the equally wonderful blizzard of feathers in Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite (1933), a film which in turn was to inspire Lindsay Anderson’s If (1968). Vigo’s film is an anarchic rebellion against authority; while Napoleon the hero cherishes calm, order and discipline, Napoleon the film is a riotous adventure in experimentation with cinema’s visual language.
It has to be said that its ideological trajectory would not displease Marine Le Pen’s Front National. Napoleon is a man to whom Destiny hints at the future with mystical regularity. The strong leader in waiting narrative at last receives its confirmation in the reactionary disarray that follows Thermidor, when Robespierre and other architects of the Terror are themselves marched off to the guillotine. Even in the overemphatic terms of silent cinema these men are caricatures, but caricatures to be enjoyed, with Antonin Artaud as a snarly-faced Marat and Gance himself in the role of St. Just, the clever but bloodthirsty zealot responsible for some of the Revolution’s best quotes. We see Couthon in a wheelchair stroking his pet rabbit, surely a precursor of the best-known Bond villain.
For all their crimes, when the moment arrives for Bonaparte to assume his first mantle of greatness he takes a detour to the Convention, by now emptied of debate and pandemonium, and communes with the ghosts of Danton and the rest. They urge him to continue their work and uphold the tenets of the Revolution.
To this day the Revolution remains the property of both left and right in France. Its great anthem, the Marseillaise, has the very first of its cinematic outings in Napoleon, when Rouget de Lisle teaches a revolutionary crowd to sing his freshly written words and music. A decade on, the years 1936-37 saw a stream of light-hearted and optimistic films in the spirit of the Popular Front government that, among other things, gave French workers paid holidays for the first time. One of these was Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise; here the story of the anthem unfolds in the lower ranks of the revolutionary army. It’s the anthem sung in defiance against the Nazis in Casablanca, and it’s also sung with gusto by the Front National. It has even been known to move some of us to tears.
This is a roundabout way of saying that the overt politics of Napoleon matter less than the film itself. It expresses them and contradicts them, visually most of all. Albert Dieudonné plays Bonaparte as aloof, proud and madly courageous, charismatic and even Christ-like, but not as a rapacious dictator in the making. He’s the Napoleon initially admired by Beethoven, who features largely in Carl Davis’ extravagant mash-up score. There’s nothing solemn about the film, it has moments of high comedy and deadpan humour that are reminiscent of Buster Keaton. The adventure sequences display a level of hyperbole and grandiloquence that strikes me as knowing, an allusion to what a superhuman hero is meant to be (escaping his pursuers on a dinghy with neither oars or sail, Bonaparte hoists a French flag instead), and an excuse for stunning Corsican landscapes and unsurvivable stormy seas – Bonaparte as the Count of Monte Cristo in cinema at its most spectacular.
It’s also cinema at its most alive, each frame literally bursting with a life that’s pushing at its edges. When we see Bonaparte in the foreground often behind him something quite extraneous is going on that we scarcely have time to make out: a couple kissing, two men dancing together, a joyous outbreak of jumping up and down. The joyousness is uncontainable; disagreements in the Convention (which at times resembles a football stadium) can turn into the kind of free for all that’s familiar from those Western saloon brawls where nobody actually gets hurt. There’s a great deal of anarchic glee. Apparently many of the extras were striking workers from a nearby Renault factory.
There are spellbinding battles (and battles aren’t at all my thing) that don’t obscure the foulness and savagery. Who else in cinema can keep you gripped by endless artillery assaults in torrential rain? Wit, humour and soldierly solidarity compel us to cheer on the army defending revolutionary France from occupation by the English and other counter-revolutionary powers. Here the brisk editing and warm colour tints draw us into a kind of realist intimacy that balances the world of the epic.
Reflecting on Napoleon the demagogue, dispenser of jobs as kings and princesses to family members, I thought of Trump. But Trump, to quote Irving Welsh on Newsnight, is a mere ‘toytown fascist’ (though clearly far from harmless). Bonaparte was beloved not only by Beethoven, but by Stendhal (who accompanied him to Moscow) before the megalomania and plunder brought on their disillusionment. What’s more, Napoleon the on-screen idealist foresees Europe as an open Republic with free frontiers, peaceful after many wars. And now there’s only heartbreak, also known as Brexit. We 21st-century Europeans are unused to seeing history this close up, this cruel, with Trump the crowning cruelty.
So much in the film leaves you in wonderment: young Napoleon’s pet eagle, the swooping cameras, the screen that splits into nine pieces, the screen that becomes a triptych (at the time needing three separate projectors), the use of colour tints: pink to mauve, red to yellow gold, an overlay of the tricolour – how was it possible to do all that in 1927. Impossible is not French, says Bonaparte in one of his many refusals to accept retreat or defeat. So it seems.
This is a film that takes the breath away, that pre-figures much of cinema to come and surpasses it. Why on earth do we pay money to go and see Hollywood dross when a film such as this was made nearly 90 years ago, way ahead of SFX and CGI. It has made me aware that in relying on the primacy of the image the silent can exert a greater power and eloquence than its offspring, the talkie.
At 5 ½ hours, plus three intervals, Napoleon has the speed of life lived fast. It exhilarates like no other film. Don’t miss it. And take your own sandwiches.