Friday, 11 November 2016

A brief(ish) guide to Abel Gance's Napoleon for anyone without 332 minutes to spare

Because I am a staggering ignoramus, my knowledge of the life and times of Emperor Of The French, King Of Italy and Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine Napoleon Bonaparte is entirely limited to the movies. So while I may have had to check Wikipedia to discover that the Battle of Waterloo wasn't actually fought inside Waterloo station, I do at least know that Napoleon was once cruelly robbed by time-travelling dwarves, and that he enjoys water slides and Ziggy Pig ice creams when visiting late-1980s San Dimas.

When it was announced, then, that Abel Gance's five-and-a-half-hour 1927 biopic of the short dead dude would be screened at the Royal Festival Hall with a full live orchestra, I grabbed the opportunity to reduce my Napoleonic ignorance to socially acceptable levels. My expertise on the subject would still be limited to what somebody kindly placed on a massive screen in front of my face, but at least this new information would be French in origin, and therefore more credible and slightly classier.
Proof that I am not making any of this up

The screening, held last Sunday, was an absolute joy despite being the same length as the average working day (the organisers had kindly inserted two wee breaks and a 100-minute dinner-plus-poo interval, bumping the total experience up to eight hours; an endurance test not dissimilar to that undergone by the soldiers in Napoleon's army, I shouldn't wonder). Carl Davis' incredible score was conducted by the maestro himself in full conducting regalia (unless that was his dressing gown), and sounded awesome when parped out by the Philharmonia Orchestra. The recently-restored picture, too, was virtually flawless, marred only by the shadow of the masking below the screen which was caused by the orchestra's lights. You'd think if they were that good they could play in the dark, but apparently no, they need to be as floodlit as a midnight football match played deep in the bowels of Moria.

If you're unfamiliar with M. Bonaparte's life story (hahaha you uncultured MORON), allow me to recap the events of Gance's extraordinary film and at the same time highlight some of its, uh, highlights. This post might look like quite long but then people said that about the film, and yet nearly a century after it was made we're still talking about it and celebrating it as a monumental achievement. Sometimes genius takes effort, that's all I'm saying. Let's march into history!

This photo of Wes Anderson may seem incongruous but I saw him just before I took my seat and I really want you to get a sense of what it was like to be there

THE FIRST EPOCH
ACT I
The first part of Napoleon concerns the future star of the 10,000 franc note's school years, focussing on his prowess in advanced tactical military operations in the field, specifically the snow-covered field just outside his school where a tense snowball fight is underway. Because all 18th century French children look the same (that's not racist), Napoleon is conveniently dressed in a Napoleon costume (complete with wang hat), as he is for the majority of the film. This makes him easy to spot among the rest of the brats, which is vital when Gance suddenly launches his camera into the fray on a toboggan or whirls it round his head like a loon. There is some seriously innovative shit going down in this scene, not least some frenetic editing, and it very quickly stops feeling like a 90-year-old film and captures the breathless freshness (and showy-offness) of the likes of Hitchcock or Tarantino.

Team Nap win the snowball fight, despite the enemy secreting rocks in their snowballs, thanks to the young leader's preternatural strategic nous. You'd think this would make him popular, but in fact he remains about as well-liked by literally everyone as a baked shit in a croque monsieur. His only friend is his pet eagle; I don't know if most French kids in those days had large, powerful birds of prey as pets but there's a suggestion that the eagle might be some kind of metaphor so I won't dwell on it. Shortly afterwards, Napples gets into a massive scrap with his entire dorm, which is so chaotic it splinters the frame into nine separate images, and it's completely brilliant.
How Michael Bay sees the world

Nine years later (not literally, the film isn't that long) and we're firmly in French revolution territory, a period in history vividly brought to life in popular culture by such artistic titans as Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo and Susan Boyle. Revolutionaries are gathering, plotting and - most importantly - picking a theme tune, and when a young officer tosses off La Marseillaise he is congratulated by Lieutenant Bonaparte and told that his work will fuel the revolution more than any army ever could. "Well that's great but I can't pay me rent with compliments can I?" he says, mostly with his face to be honest. It is a chilling portent of the issues still faced by young creatives today, although Gance chooses not to focus on that theme. No doubt he was being quite sufficiently remunerated for his work, merci beaucoup. Anyway until this point Carl Davis had been teasing the first few notes of La Marseillaise in his score before blasting it out in full, not unlike David Arnold's gradual revealing of the James Bond theme in Casino Royale. I'll let them argue over who thought of it first but it's very effective.

The Napster returns to his homeland of Corsica, which - much to his horror - is about to come under English rule. He stresses the need for the island to remain French, and thereby once again annoys pretty much everyone. A price is put on his head and he is forced to escape to the coast in an amazing sequence which features horse-mounted cameras and all sorts of kinetic whizzbangery that shoves you right into the middle of things. Pausing only to steal a giant Tricolour from the town hall, Napoleon legs it to the sea where he finds a boat with no oars or sail, and in a crowd-pleasingly triumphant moment of unlikely genius he rigs up the flag and uses it as a sail to power his boat away from the army on his tail. I'd like to believe this scene was the inspiration for Roger Moore's Union Jack parachute in The Spy Who Loved Me, and frankly I think Carl Davis missed a trick by not having the orchestra burst into the Bond theme at this point.

Meanwhile, as Napoleon is tossed on the waves of a storm in a jaw-dropping example of early cinema, France is undergoing its own political storm. Fearing that 1920s audiences may not have grasped the allegory, Gance helpfully points it out in an intertitle which may as well have included the phrase "Do you see what I did there?". Not long after, Napoleon drops one of its best gags (of which, surprisingly, there are many) as a coincidentally on-the-scene Horatio Nelson is denied permission to blow Napoleon's boat out of the water. It's funnier in the film, trust me.

INTERMISSION
Feel free to go for a wee at this point, or alternatively do what the large gentleman at the end of my row did and remain in your seat without moving to let anyone past, thereby forcing us all to clamber down a row in order to get to the ruddy bog.
Napoleon's is on the right

ACT II
I'll be honest, Act II lost me a bit. It was late afternoon by this point and I was already quite sleepy, and as far as I could gather the best part of an hour was spent on the siege of Toulon (essentially Napoleon's Battle of Helm's Deep), a supposedly impressive battle scene that's actually quite confusing and really very lengthy indeed. It looks great though, tinted red and with rain hammering down like nails. But, you know, ten minutes max is all that requires. I did enjoy some moments of eye-watering violence though, like when a heavy cart rolled over some poor bastard's leg or an unsuspecting soldier got an eight-inch knife thrust up his anus. I also liked the bit where a British general, in the midst of all the chaos, pours himself a nice cuppa from a china tea set while casually ordering the destruction of the French fleet, and I wondered how much longer Gance was planning to continue this comedy xenophobia because I didn't want to enjoy it too much.

END OF THE FIRST EPOCH
(DINNERTIME)
You now have 100 minutes to pop next door to Giraffe for dinner or, if money is no object, get a sandwich from the Royal Festival Hall. You are also free to take this opportunity to go home if you're not enjoying yourself, as at least eight people did who were sitting near me. This was great because the old couple next to me had been alternately providing a running commentary on the film and audibly sleeping, so I was glad to see the back of them. Wealthy middle class pensioner audiences in all their Marks & Spencer finery are the absolute worst, they really are.

THE SECOND EPOCH
ACT III
If Act I is Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone and Act II is The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, then Act III is a political drama with slatherings of military strategy and dollops of romantic comedy, and I can't think of a modern equivalent of that. There's clearly a gap in the market for a new film that covers all those bases, so if one pops up you'll know where they got the idea from. (Me. Not Abel Gance)

There's a lot of chit-chat and argy-bargy and ooh-la-la in whatever the French equivalent of the Houses Of Parliament is, and it's tricky to keep track of who's on which side. At some point the general public turn on the revolutionary leaders for overthrowing all the toffs and then sitting on their fat arses eating Camembert, and quite rightly too. Imagine if our leaders presided over an enormous political upheaval and then didn't have a single fucking clue how it was going to work! Why, we'd show them who's really in charge by writing pithy comments of 140 characters or fewer and distributing them to people who thought exactly as we do. That'd show 'em.

Napopo gets disappointingly little screen time while all this is going on. Poor and hungry, he's asked to contribute a plan for invading Austrian-occupied Italy but his ideas are rejected for being too stupid, so he uses them to paper over missing panes of glass in the windows of his Napshack. Not sure what he was intending to do when it rained, but he's the master strategist so I'm sure his little bit of paper will keep him dry somehow. Then, shortly after the Thermidor comes the Vendémiaire (if you don't know what I'm talking about you really are a massive thicko), and Napoleon steps up to lead the revolutionaries against an uprising of Royalists. He does this so sexily that he catches the eye of Josephine, and at a party celebrating his victory he wins her in a game of chess, or something.
The lengths you had to go to to get a date pre-Tinder

We head into a lengthy stretch of wooing, which reminded me of the excruciating scene in Henry V when Hal tries to get off with Kate by reciting Shakespeare at her, except it works much better in Napoleon because you can't hear any talking. "When you're silent you're irresistible," Jo tells Nap, which doesn't reflect awfully well on the reputation of the French as charming lovers but does provide a good opportunity for people who like it when silent films get a bit meta.

Eventually Napoleon and Josephine marry. I was waiting for an amusing wedding-night use of the phrase "Not tonight, Josephine", but evidently Gance hadn't done his research thoroughly enough and it never came (and neither did Josephine, ZINNNNG!). At the same time Violine, a childhood friend of Napoleon's who has fancied him since, like, forever, cries into the definitely-not-weird Napoleon shrine she's constructed in her bedroom. Later on Josephine will discover this shrine in a creepily effective handheld POV scene, the likes of which you rarely see in early cinema. The evidence that Abel Gance visited the future looking for filmmaking tips is stacking up and I am yet to be convinced by his defence, which is simply that he is some kind of genius.

INTERMISSION
make u think

Nearly there guys. You've got this far so you may as well carry on. Do what I did and get a coffee from EAT to keep you going, but don't do what I did and spill it down your trousers because that's the shittest way to end an experience like this.

ACT IV
The Napman sets off to the Alps to do some hardcore war, but stops en route at the now-deserted Maisons de Parliament, feeling nostalgic for all the great times that were had there. The ghosts and echoes of dead revolutionaries pester him with interview-type questions about his intentions, and he responds with a rousing speech that elicited a spontaneous round of applause in the Royal Festival Hall, particularly this bit:
LOL as if

The pro-European sentiment went down well with the crowd (especially as I'd pegged most of them as Leave voters), although I felt like people seemed to miss the irony in the fact that Napoleon was literally yelling into an echoey chamber like an 18th century French Armando Iannucci on Twitter.

To the Alps, then, and the funnest stretch of this wild and crazy Bonaparty. As Napoleon gives the obligatory rousing pre-battle speech, Gance goes absolutely fucking mental and triples the width of the screen by shooting with two extra cameras. The triptych, as I believe we must call it, is absolutely first class for three reasons: firstly, when the image is expanded it allows a literally wider scope for Gance's remarkable vision; secondly (and thirdly), when Gance places separate images onto the three screens it facilitates clever visual juxtaposition while effectively allowing us to watch an hour of footage in twenty minutes, thereby bringing the prospect of hometime much closer to a reality. Maybe if Gance had deployed this technique earlier I wouldn't have missed Planet Earth II, and would have understood what all the tweets about iguanas and snakes meant, but again I shan't dwell on his faults because he isn't here to defend himself.
ERROR: Triptych is too amazing for blog. Please crop it or reduce resolution

It's a minor disappointment that we see a lot of the buildup to and aftermath of the battle in the final act and not many actual killings, but it hardly matters. Carl Davis' score has gone into full-on pomp mode by now and the triptych has been tinted blue, white and red and everyone in the Royal Festival Hall is in the latter stages of crazed, cabin-fever-induced ecstasy, as no doubt you also are by this point. And so with a final appearance by Napoleon's possibly imaginary eagle and its deeply unconvincing shadow leading the troops home, Abel Gance's Napoleon comes to a rousing climax (unlike Josephine, ZINNNNG!). I sucked myself out of the me-shaped dent in my seat and, following in the diminutive footsteps of Napoleon Bonaparte himself, headed for a rendezvous with destiny at Waterloo. (walked to the tube station)

THE END

Clearly this isn't quite the end, because I need to tell you some more things. Firstly, although Carl Davis won't be dragging the Philharmonia Orchestra to selected cinemas across the country, you can see this quite incredible film and hear his score at a film-o-plex near you from today (assuming you're reading this on November 11th 2016). And if you'd like to be able to watch it naked but your cinema of choice frowns on the freedom to bare all, it's out on Blu-ray and DVD on November 21st. The home entertainment release is a thing of immaculate beauty, and although it does not contain this blog post as a special feature (too highbrow for the "BFI", no doubt), it does include the following:

  • A lovely interview with Carl Davis about how great he is
  • A featurette on the restoration presented by a BFI archivist who, fantastically, wears a white lab coat with three pens neatly clipped into the breast pocket
  • A 1968 BBC documentary on Abel Gance which, amazingly, features actual behind-the-scenes footage of him directing Napoleon in 1927. Why didn't Hitchcock do that? Slacker.
  • Some stills and what have you
  • A commentary (which, at five and a half hours, I confess I haven't listened to in full. Or at all)
  • Most excitingly, each panel of the triptych is presented by itself on a disc of its own. This means that if you can find three DVD players and three 4:3 TVs you can, in theory, line them up and play the final act as it was meant to be seen (not on three 4:3 TVs you understand, but with the extended width and no loss of height).

OK, that's definitely the end now. Well done if you made it this far. As a reward, here's my favourite picture of Napoleon. À bientôt!

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