Tremendous. Amazing. Prodigious.
After Griffith (Orphans of the Storm, 1921) and Ingram (Scaramouche, 1923), it was time the French cinematographers told their own version of the French Revolution.
And, speaking as a Frenchman, I can tell you I am not disappointed. Even if Robespierre is still considered as a villain. And this time, the main characters look more alike their historical models. We also can enjoy a great movie sequence : La Marseillaise (read below).
But this is the story of Napoleon. In the film, it begins in 1783 and ends in 1796, before Napoleon becomes the emperor - and dictator - we all know.
The film starts in Brienne, when young Napoleon (Vladimir Roudenko) was a pupil in this military school. He is 14 and plays with the other boys. They have a snowball fight, where he (already) acts like a strategist. And it ends before entering in
Between these two events, Abel Gance shows us what one could find in History books in those days. Nothing misses: the foul snowball; Napoleon crossing the Mediterranean Sea with a flag for a sail; the fight for the Redoute of
But even if this is a biopic, this film is far more than that. This is what we call CINEMA!
It was released the same year as
This is a feast of images. With Abel Gance, two other illustrious filmmakers helped in making this film a masterpiece: Viktor Tourjanski and Alexandre Volkoff.
The camera is (nearly) always on the move. The rhythm is always changing: slow and fast sequences - and especially fast ones - give us a breathtaking effect.
This frenzy of images reach a few climaxes : the snowball fight, La Marseillaise, August the 10th 1792... This is incredible! We are flooded by images: five images are overlaid on another, creating a climax.
As this is a film made by Abel Gance, you can be sure to find a sort of orgiastic sequence: the Victim Ball. In this scene, we can see people having a big feast with gallons of wine and half-naked young women, dancing like in a bacchanal: this was Abel Gance!
But Napoleon is overall its actor: Albert Dieudonné. He does not act like Napoleon. He IS Napoleon. He looks like him, he walks like him, he sees like him. He is the future Emperor. His exaltation gives his soldiers - the future "Grande Armée" - the epic spirit they lacked to go to war. His eyes have all the eloquence we cannot hear in a silent film. This is why the silent films will always be superior to talking pictures.
There is also a more intimate Napoleon : he does not know what to say to Josephine; he accepts to play blind man's buff with her children... He is as clumsy as he is a good strategist. These moments show us a human person. He can be approached. But these moments do not last. Even with his family in
But Napoleon is above all a series of extraordinary sequences, iconic shall we say.
- The snowball fight: it is part of the golden legend of Napoleon. But Gance shoots it as a founding scene. This moment announces what and who he will be. The camera is very near the action. We can almost live it. Sometimes the camera is subjective, sometimes, it is steady, but most of the time, we are inside the fight, very near the action. In this sequence, a recurring character is introduced: Tristan Fleury (Nicolas Koline) who will witness all the steps of Napoleon's rise, form
La Marseillaise: three great films have a pertinent use of this anthem. La grande Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937),
The night of August the 10th, 1792: on this night, Gance shows us two important events. The end of Royalty and Napoleon's crossing of the
- The Gates of
And this is where Napoleon-Dieudonné is the greatest: he WILL be an emperor!
Three hundred and thirty-two minutes of pure cinema: a great pleasure and much emotion!