Sunday, June 23, 2024

Napoléon vu par Abel Gance - première partie: Bonaparte - 2024 reconstruction and restoration La Cinémathèque française


Napoléon vu par Abel Gance, première partie (FR 1927). The Double Tempest. The vision of Marianne - Goddess of Liberty, personification of the French Revolution, the French Republic and embodiment of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and Reason.

International title: Napoleon.
    FR 1927. Director: Abel Gance. Scen.: Abel Gance. F.: Léonce-Henri Burel, Jules Kruger, Joseph-Louis Mundwiller, Nikolai Toporkoff. M.: Abel Gance, Marguerite Beaugé. Scgf.: Alexandre Benois, Ivan Lochakoff, Eugène Lourié, Pierre Schildknecht. Int.: Albert Dieudonné (Napoleone Bonaparte), Vladimir Roudenko (Napoleone Bonaparte da giovane), Edmond Van Daële (Robespierre), Alexandre Koubitzky (Danton), Antonin Artaud (Jean-Paul Marat), Abel Gance (Saint-Just), Gina Manès (Joséphine de Beauharnais), Suzanne Bianchetti (Maria Antoinetta), Marguerite Gance (Charlotte Corday), Yvette Dieudonné (Elisa Bonaparte). Prod.: Société du Film Napoléon, Société Générale de Films. DCP. D.: 220’. Col.
    From: La Cinémathèque française.
    French intertitles with English subtitles and e-subtitles in Italian.
    Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna 2024: Recovered and Restored
    Introduced by Costa-Gavras and Frédéric Bonnaud (La Cinémathèque française)
    Viewed at Cinema Modernissimo, 23 June 2024

Reconstructed and restored by La Cinémathèque française, with the support of CNC – Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée and Ministère de la Culture, under the direction of Georges Mourier at Éclair Classics – L’Image Retrouvée laboratory. Music composed by Simon Cloquet-Lafollye and performed by Benjamin Bernheim, tenor, Orchestre National de France and Orchestre Philharmonique et le Choeur de Radio France, under the direction of Fabien Gabel.

This is not about morals, or politics, but art.
– Abel Gance

Joël Daire (Bologna Catalogue, 2024): " The new restoration’s frame rate has been fully re-established at 18 frames per second, previously only the case for the Brienne episodes. This gives the film a new fluidity. The effect on the audience of the singing of La Marseillaise in sync with the actors’ lips at long last remains to be seen. Moreover, while the new restoration’s extra 90 minutes provide the merest hint of new, rediscovered sequences, they exist nonetheless; beginning with the powerful images of civil war that open the siege of Toulon sequence and conclude the first part of the film, a rigorous and painstaking piece of reconstruction. The restoration also made every effort to respect the experimental dimension that Abel Gance wanted to give his work, and this shines through in many iconic sequences (Brienne, La Marseillaise at the Cordeliers, the “double tempest,” the shadows at the National Convention, the famous triple-screen of the Italian army’s departure…). As the first entirely digital restoration, this new version strove to overcome many difficulties previously considered unsolvable, working with photochemical technology alone: colours chart, aspect ratio, authentic reproduction of the original tinting etc. The combination of all these elements is sufficient to guarantee audiences a film that is very different from the one they may remember. "

" But what is it that engenders the emotion of film, or in other words, poetry on the screen? What the extended version of Napoléon offers visually takes viewers far beyond anecdotal narrative and plunges them into the mystery of what Gance called his “music of light,” and his friend Epstein “the idea between the images.” In his great works of the preceding years, such as J’accuse! and La Roue, Gance works in his themes and motifs in the form of overlays, juxtaposing rather than combining them. In Napoléon – especially in the “Apollo” version – in full mastery of his art, he reaches new heights of dazzling virtuosity. Nothing escapes Gance and he’s indifferent to nothing. Right up to the eleventh hour, he adjusts the editing of any given scene. "

" Conceived as a gigantic visual symphony, Napoléon exposes, juxtaposes, combines and interweaves themes and instruments – in the form of his camera operators, actors, extras, landscapes and sets – right down to his title cards… He applied the same scientific method, the same combinatory genius, to his characters and to emotions. There isn’t one sequence in Napoléon that isn’t woven through with drama mixed with comedy, shot through with sense of rhythm – a kind of music, if you will – propelling the viewer out of the diegetic time of the action into a sublime visual symphony, further enhanced by the new score. "

" Over the top or inspired, the triptychs assured the film its triumph at l’Opéra de Paris, but only the second one, featuring the Italian army, has survived; the “double tempest” triptych surviving only in its single-screen version. Like a Renaissance altarpiece, the three-screen extravaganza of symbolist dramaturgy, combining the horizontal (the conquest of Italy) and the vertical (multiple superimpositions of images of Bonaparte, Josephine, the yet-to-be-imperial eagle, the world on a globe and the “beggars of glory”) form the obligatory epilogue of the extended version, even if it wasn’t shown at the Apollo in May 1927. In his “proclamation” of 4 June 1924, addressed to all his contemporary and future collaborators, Abel Gance concluded: “Today it is for the public to tell us whether we achieved our goal.” We couldn’t have put it better ourselves! " Joël Daire (Bologna Catalogue, 2024)

AA: Napoléon vu par Abel Gance is a towering achievement of the cinema, and in its first half seen today in a brilliant digital restoration by La Cinémathèque française it's as vigorous, exhilarating and troubling as ever. The visual quality is exquisite.

It's a classic but also an ever-young achievement of experimental cinema, of the première avant-garde of the 1920s French cinema. D. W. Griffith had gone far in exploring montage in Intolerance, and Abel Gance went even further in J'accuse, La Roue and Napoléon, the culmination of his exploration in the possibilities of the film media. It is intoxicating and stimulating at the same time. It's the portrait of a revolutionary turning into a reactionary.

I have been a champion of Napoléon since I saw Kevin Brownlow's documentary Abel Gance - The Charm of Dynamite (GB 1968) at the Cinemateket / Svenska Filminstitutet in 1981. Then in 1984 at Arsenal in West Berlin I saw the 1981 Zoetrope Studios version of Napoléon in a 16 mm print with the house pianist, a veteran from the 1920s, playing live for the duration of 285 minutes, Arsenal perhaps slowing down the projection speed of the version that runs 235 min at sound speed?

Came the first full experience: a live cinema event of the Kevin Brownlow restoration  with Carl Davis conducting his own score at the Finlandia Hall in Helsinki in 1986. It was 320 minutes, and the polyvision was realized with a dual projection of 35 mm and 70 mm. I had the privilege of being the Finnish Film Archive liaison of the event, launched by Peter von Bagh, who had left the Archive the year before.

I also saw live Kevin Brownlow's third Napoléon restoration in the 20th anniversary gala of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto at Teatro Nuovo Giovanni da Udine in 2001, Carl Davis again conducting his score. It was 333 minutes long and felt exquisite with refined tinting passages achieved with vintage chemical methods. Tinting almost invariably fails in modern copies, whether photochemical or digital, but this time they got it right.


Of this year's restoration I had the pleasure the enjoy an "appetizer screening" at La Cinémathèque française in March in which Simon Cloquet-Lafollye demonstrated the impact of the new music in six scenes: La Marseillaise, Siège de Toulon, La Terreur, Mariage de Bonaparte, the Double Wedding and the Italian Campaign.

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This year I pay attention to new aspects. Abel Gance portrays the royal family with dignity. Napoléon is such an extreme workaholic that he never properly registers his best friends, the Fleuri family. But they register him, and there can be no better recommendation for a man. This is a film so rich in telling details, that I am not always sure if there is a newfound moment added to the restoration or whether I have just not noticed it before.

In Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan inserts experimental passages to convey thinking about quantum physics. Segundo de Chomón's special effect montage superimpositions of Napoléon's thinking fully bear comparison.

Certainly something new is the compilation score by Simon Cloquet-Lafollye, a jigsaw puzzle of 104 compositions by 48 composers. I could not believe my ears when I registered Sibelius (Pelléas et Mélisande and The Tempest), but those entries do fit in the film. How about Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Wagner? No problem. In the finale of this Part One, Cloquet-Lafollye finally gives in to Beethoven, and we hear the funeral march from Eroica in Gance's devastating "war's peace" sequence of the casualties of Toulon and the burning of the French Navy.

After the Udine screening in 2001 I launched a "too much Beethoven?" discussion with my friends from La Cinémathèque française. Is there too much Beethoven in the Carl Davis score? Or can there ever be enough of Beethoven? Today I think that one thing is sure: Beethoven is the Napoléon composer par excellence, expressing both the revolutionary bravado and the tragedy of Napoléon's transformation into an imperialist, nationalist and militarist - the Emperor. They were contemporaries: Beethoven (1770-1827), Napoléon (1769-1824). Napoléon, Beethoven and Gance share a common spiritual dimension of grandeur. Gance directed also Beethoven biopics: La Dixième Symphonie and Un grand amour de Beethoven.

Beethoven is the obvious choice, and the real issue is: is it too obvious?

Ridley Scott in his Napoleon avoided the obvious - no Beethoven, not even La Marseillaise, instead drawing from Haydn.

It is rewarding to get lost in the details of Napoléon. There is an abundance of them. But over it all there hovers a powerful spirit of history. Sometimes centuries pass and nothing changes. Sometimes there is a moment when things start to turn and everything changes. Abel Gance catches this moment and this spirit unforgettably. His movie is deeply human, deeply tragic and deeply historical.

The 2024 restoration by La Cinémathèque française is destined to become the standard version, and the standard is high indeed. It is full of joys to behold. I trust that La Cinémathèque française also pays fair tribute to Kevin Brownlow in the process.

Napoléon was never a lost film, but Kevin Brownlow was the one whose restoration in 1979-1980 rediscovered the full glory of Abel Gance and his film to a modern global audience. More than that, his Napoléon restoration was instrumental in reviving the glory of the silent cinema in general, after it had been lying semi-dormant for half a century.

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Until now, I have always seen Napoléon with English intertitles only (the Brownlow and Coppola versions). Today, for the first time with French intertitles. Vive la France!

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The week after Bologna, the full 2024 restoration was premiered in Paris.
The Polyvision (triptych) sequences were screened letterboxed = half the size of the regular image.

Simon Cloquet-Lafollye wrote the score for the 2024 reconstruction of Napoléon vu par Abel Gance drawing on 104 works by 48 different composers. Photo from: Frédéric Bonnaud & Joël Daire (ed.): Napoléon, vu par Abel Gance (Paris: La Table Ronde, 2024). From: The Realm of Silence, Paul Cuff, 5 June 2024.

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