Monday, October 22, 2007

Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927)

Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927)
Rating: 10

Like D.W. Griffith's Intolerance before it, Abel Gance's masterpiece, Napoléon was a financial disaster, yet an artistic triumph, and perhaps even the greatest film ever made. Unfortunately many people misconstrue the silent film era as being a stale, insipid period in the history of film making with little camera movement, however this film among others slaps that notion in the face. Gance understood the power of cinema more than anyone else, and he utilized each of it's many elements to the fullest capacity. He astonishingly employs just about every technique imaginable in the film language arsenal and even invented his own methods to stimulate and thrill audiences as well. To convey his goal of "super cinema" he needed a personality as big as Napoléon carry such a spectacle. This nearly six hour biopic was far ahead of it's time in many aspects and despite being meant for a mainstream audience, Gance boldly incorporated many avant-garde techniques. The film ends with Napoléon's invasion of Italy in 1797 because it was intended to be part one of six, however because of the difficulty of setting up three projectors in different theaters as well as the ushering in of the sound film, Napoléon basically faded into obscurity until it's incomplete restoration in 1980 (at least 90 minutes of footage still missing).

The editing of this film is quite an accomplishment in and of itself given the daunting nature of it as it combines both the traditional seamless Hollywood style with the frantic collision style editing of the Soviet montage directors. The film consists of overlapping imagery, juxtapositions, intercutting, pioneering hand held camera work, a 9 frame split screen, tinted and tones scenes, tracking shots, dolly shots, etc. The shot compositions are also particularly gorgeous, with variations of silhouette shots, mirror shots, low angle shots, overhead shots, extreme long shots, extreme close ups, and everything in between. Perhaps the most iconic scene is the snowball fight during the title character's childhood days at school which resembles an actual military battle. There is also a fantastic scene where we see inside the mind of Bonaparte as he converses with fallen leaders and political figureheads. Another memorable sequence in the film crosscuts between Napoléon struggling against fate as his boat is tossed around at sea in a storm, and the storm of political uprising at the convention. As the people of France revolt, the camera moves like a pendulum over their heads, simulating the crashing waves. Most notably Gance envisioned the widescreen format over 20 years before it became widely accepted in the culminating final twenty-minute triptych sequence, which alternates widescreen panoramas with complex multiple- image montages projected simultaneously on three screens. In the concluding minutes each of the three screen is tinted a different color. One Red, one white, and the other blue, to simulate the French flag.

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