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Napoleon (Napoléon vu par Abel Gance)

A triumph of 1920s silent cinema, this newly restored cut of the dirty classic benefits from an orchestral score, but the strength lies in the complexity and ambition of the script - live from Cannes


A triumph of 1920s silent cinema, the newly restored cut benefits from an orchestral score, but the strength lies in the complexity and ambition of the script. The film opens on a snowball fight, where one character takes the lead, and co-ordinates a plan that wins the battle for his team. The character, of course, is Napoleon Bonaparte (performed by child-actor Vladimir Roudenko, before Albert Dieudonné takes over), who is misunderstood by his teachers and bullied by his classmates. But behind the silence stands a strange intelligence, one that thrives under the duress of conflict. Bonaparte finds solace in his eagle, who soars to impossible heights, often at the drop of a hat. For the rest of the picture, Bonaparte – who is mocked for his peculiar Corsican diction by his teachers, and undervalued by his superiors in the army – apes the motions of his pet, picturing a France that will succeed under his name.

Despite some artistic flourish (which includes one genuinely jaw-dropping silhouette, which illustrates the devastating effects of a tornado, through a combination of fast cuts, wide angles and rain-machines), Napoléon veers far closer to the historical texts than Ridley Scott’s negligible effort. Indeed, the film is drenched with quotes from historians, which pad out the screen between scenes. Dieudonné is a much more imposing incarnation of the French leader than Joaquin Phoenix; his gaze a tidy mix of stentorian confidence and oblique depression. In an almost tantric moment, director Abel Gance combines a shot of the two Napoleons – the younger, and the wiser – together in one frame, showing how youthful indiscretion can benefit an older, more seasoned general.

Watching it in 2024, Napoleon is impressive both for its technical achievements, as well as its compositional ones. During the course of the epic – the first of a two part restoration, which will be concluded in Paris this coming July – Napoleon grows, breathes and matures as a person. He starts his journey as a boarder incapable of making clear-headed, rational decisions, and ends it as a champion, ready to embrace love for what could be the first time in his life. Impressively, some of the scenes were filmed at Napoleon’s house in Ajaccio, which gives credence to the central dissertation; behind the murderous streak, stood a man determined to do right by his family. As if spurned into action by his environment, Napoleon vows to protect Corsica from British rule: undermining the motives of his political rivals as he does so.

This cut reportedly took fifteen years to complete, which mirrors some of the character’s philosophies (“Impossible is not French,” he bellows at his soldiers.) Bolstered by Simon Coquet’s score, the film features a genuinely beautiful version of ‘La Marseillaise’ sung by Benjamin Bernheim, the one and only instance of sound heard throughout the entire re-master. What other cuts were made (some colouring perhaps; grading too) are unknown at the time of writing, but the film is powerful enough to win over discerning audiences by virtue of its complexity and commitment to detail. Luxuriantly produced, and peopled with a large cast of possibly hundreds, the film throws viewers headfirst into the history, paying particular attention to the injuries and fatalities endured by the central characters.

Make no mistake: In the context of Gance’s world, the thrust of a snowball is almost as painful as a sword in the rear. The audiences witness a soldier gasping with pain, wincing with fear, and struggling to keep their breath under floods of water. Despite this commitment to warfare – the concluding battle between England and France is particularly impressive – Dieudonné shines greatest during the quieter sections; as if stating that the emotional scars weigh heavier than anything he could obtain in battle. Napoleon seems genuinely crestfallen when he reconnects with his mother, recalling the years they could/should have spent together. Behind the facade stands a man who is all too familiar with the life he abandoned for warfare, and weaponry, and it’s only during the quieter moments that his eyes betray his true self. Unlike many stylised films from the 1920s (Charlie Chaplin’s oeuvre stems to mind), Napoleon is drenched from head to toe in reality; every bruise is felt by the actor, every emotion is similarly enriched by the actor in question.

The film is also notable for its humour: A child-drummer celebrates his youth in the face of devastating warfare; an eagle is released to the wild by two wilful schoolboys, only to perch on the tree just outside the boarding school; and then there’s Napoleon, who spends the majority of the runtime peering over maps of Europe with mischievous glee, only to fall prey to the temptation of “bread, olives and silence” in a bar. What the film provides is an overview, and by virtue of the ambition, deservedly earns its protracted runtime (an early cut of the feature purportedly ran over nine hours; this version, when it is unveiled side by side with the second part of the film, will still clock in at a hefty seven. The cut that was screened at Cannes ran at a comparatively trim three hours and 40 minutes in length.)

Of the two Napoleon’s, Dieudonné is given the meatier arc, but Roudenko acquits himself nicely to the role of schoolboy burning with ambition his teachers will never comprehend. The prologue ends with the younger Bonaparte asleep by a canon, peering over the land he hopes to one day rule. His strength mirrors the complexity of his pet eagle, but just like the bird he cages, Bonaparte aches for a future he can only picture in his head. Much like the entire film, this scene is driven by intrigue, complexity and contradiction; that it is so expertly shot and edited is a bonus.

A crisp restoration of Napoleon just premiered at the 77th Festival de Cannes. Below is the trailer of an earlier release:

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