Anita Brookner goes to see Abel Gance’s film ‘Napoleon’

Precipitations fall thickly and heavily in Abel Gance’s Napoleon: snow in the courtyard of the college in Brienne, feathers from savaged pillows, rain and hail on the drums at the siege of Toulon, song-sheets fluttering down at the National Convention, confetti at the extraordinary Bal des Victimes, at which everyone present had to have lost a relative on the scaffold or to have been reprieved himself. This migraine-inducing technique, confined to a screen the size of an old-fashioned glass lantern slide, tests one’s nerve and endurance much as those of the recruits in the Army of Italy were tested before General Bonaparte, lanky, scarecrowish, hat planted sideways, won them to confidence, excitement and triumph. By the end of the day-long showing, the audience rose in a comparable mood of exaltation as the screen opened out onto an immense triple montage of red, white and blue, with a long last image of exploding galaxies.

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