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.

This is Napoleon before he had his hair cut à la Titus, before he returned to Paris after conquering Italy. As a beautiful baleful child at school, testing his strategic powers and personal will in a snowball fight against (rather than with) his classmates, struck down by snowballs containing stones (‘Look out, Napoleon,’ cries a friendly scullion), he sheds multiple glycerine tears but is comforted by a pet eagle in a cage. This bird, set free by his little enemies, and looking like the mature Napoleon played by Albert Dieudonné, returns from time to time, to alight on the mast of a ship in a storm off Corsica, or, at the end, to hover over the advancing troops on the heights above Montezemolo.

The outdoor scenes, blindingly black and white, are almost cancelled out by the chaotic images of the National Convention, crowded with some thousands of potential insurrectionists, all of them penned by the benches of a narrow amphitheatre and threatening both to hurry on the Revolution and to impede its progress. The tiny desk at which Robespierre, then Saint-Just, stand to speak, and from which they are routed, is the naked wooden rostrum at which only Napoleon wins a resounding victory. There is a frightening image of Robespierre, in his powdered wig and his coat with the striped facings, shouted down and trying to find a seat in the audience, moving from one tier to another, higher and higher, until forced by the crowd to descend again to the podium where he is arrested and taken off into custody. Saint-Just (played by Abel Gance himself) is an elegant young dandy with earrings and a powder puff; he makes a better showing before meeting the same fate.

This extraordinarily comprehensive view of Napoleon includes a long interlude in Corsica where his will and magnetism are put to the test by the political machinations of Pozzo di Borgo, who wants the protection of the English. Before rallying Corsica to the French, Napoleon embraces his mother, and the most moving sequence of the entire film shows their slow and ecstatic reunion in the kitchen of their home. ‘Napoleone,’ mouths the elderly actress playing Madame Mère; his long scrawny face creases and his rouged mouth shapes the word ‘Maman’. They move into one another’s arms. ‘Maman’, repeats the mouth, and the subtitles are mercifully absent.

These subtitles tend to be risible, as all subtitles do. ‘What is your name, young man?’ ‘Rouget de Lisle.’ A great deal of interrogation and name-dropping goes on. ‘Friend Junot, I like you!’ ‘Your name?’ ‘Murat, General.’ Yet the slight titters were quelled by the spectacle of Danton, looking like Beethoven, leading the National Convention in the singing of the ‘Marseillaise’, in a frenzy of patriotism not quite matched by the ladies and gentlemen of the orchestra, playing a version arranged by Carl Davis. It must be said that the musical score, which ranges through Beethoven, Haydn, Cherubini, Dittersdorf, Glück, Gossec, Grétry, Mehul, Mozart and Paisiello, and which accompanies the entire film, is as remarkable as the story it helps to illustrate. With one’s eyes and ears thus filled one can endure the screen’s comment on Thermidor – ‘What a mess!’ – followed shortly after by the announcement: ‘I believe THAT man will save France!’ Josephine, convincingly older than Napoleon, and with a bosom at waist level, saves her suitor from possible embarrassment with the line: ‘When you are silent you are irresistible.’

It must be said that with the exception of Lucile Desmoulins, the ladies, who look more or less identical, make a poor showing. Mme Tallien has her tall cane and Mme Récamier the band of ribbon in her hair as shown in David’s portrait. Both they, and Josephine, and Napoleon’s humble admirer, Violine Fleuri, have the pale brilliant glassy eyes à fleur de peau and the small hard cupid’s bow mouths of the 1920s and not of the 1790s. All have unreclaimed teeth. And curiously enough they have the wrong period movements: Violine’s shoulders shrink like those of Karsavina in the film of Le Spectre de la Rose. And their hair, which should be drawn up to the top of the head in the style known as à la victime, i.e. exposing the neck and throat, gives the impression of being bobbed and shingled. Josephine, flirting heavily with her fan (‘What weapons do you fear most, General?’ ‘Fans, Madame’) is a vamp. Anyone who is not a vamp is an ingénue. Life was simpler then.

The love story is hideously convincing, the male chauvinist dinosaur struck down by the stratagems of a clever woman, shorn of initiative, sexually enthralled, yet forgetting his own wedding until a friend reminds him that his presence is required at the Mairie of the Second Arrondissement. Finding time to dash in at nightfall, he precipitates the ceremony: ‘Faster! Skip that bit!’ There follows a vampire-like kiss beside a bridal bed decked with garlands, and within seconds he is off to Italy, penning love letters in his coach speeding down the Route Nationale to Nice, reaching for pieces of paper which he inscribes ‘Provisions’, ‘Ambulances’, ‘Assemblies’ and hands out of the window to messengers. It is Josephine’s now rapt face that fills two of the three screens in the closing sequence, the central frame filled alternately with the beaky face of Dieudonné’s Napoleon (astonishingly like Gros’s portrait of him at Arcola, painted within days of the battle) and, of course, the eagle.

But if Josephine slightly lets the side down (as the poor woman did, to her cost), the ravishing images more than compensate. There is the cat peering from the mouth of a cannon; there is the hand crushed by the wheel of a gun-carriage; there is a giant Tricolour unfurling; there is a slowly collapsing staircase; there is the unmoving face of Charlotte Corday (beautiful Marguerite Gance) and her hand sheathing the knife in her bodice; there is Marat’s shoulder with a scab on it, and the underside of his dead jaw. And there are, above all, the great set-pieces, like the grotesque and vulnerable faces of the crowd at the National Convention, or the sea like a lake of silver before it tilts into waves that fill the screen from top to bottom; there is the Army of Italy, composed of scores of ragged men, threatening to march into the auditorium. There is Napoleon, gaunt, on his horse in the far distance, looking like Daumier’s Don Quixote. There is Robespierre in the Maison Duplay, his terrors soothed by a young man playing a hurdy-gurdy. There is the giant with the words Mort aux Tyrans painted on his chest; he guards the door to the National Convention and signifies the end of the old order, yet he bows to Camille Desmoulins.

Above all, there is energy, extravagance, ambition, orgiastic pleasure, high drama and the desire for endless victory: not only Napoleon’s destiny but everyone’s most central hope. One sees why this film appealed to de Gaulle, especially when Napoleon outlines to Marat his vision of a federation of European states led by France. At this point, there floated into the vault of the cinema a subliminal feeling that he ought to have been allowed to carry this through. The English, represented by Admiral Hood who refuses to waste powder and shot on a French ship called Le Hasard and a general who pours himself a leisurely cup of tea at an evening reception during the siege of Toulon, are shown as eccentric and never potentially victorious. But the film ends, amid wild cheering from the audience, long before France’s final defeat.

Abel Gance is now 91 and his film, the first of a planned series of six, was premiered in Paris in April 1927. The enormous cost of the production, and the advent, six months later, of talking pictures, put a stop to Gance’s plans, and the novelty of The Jazz Singer eclipsed the novelty of a camera on a pendulum, describing vertiginous arcs that induce first-degree nausea. A shortened version was produced in 1934, and then the whole thing disappeared. In 1967 Gance gave Kevin Brownlow access to his reels and negatives, and within 12 weeks Brownlow, having contacted archives all over the world, mounted an almost complete version. Several reels are still missing, including some of the triptych scenes which Gance may have destroyed in a fit of despair. A tripartite image of the Bal des Victimes was among them, and from the brilliance of the single frames that remain one can imagine the impact it would have had.

There are moments when total belief is suspended, but these are few. Sometimes the heavily shadowed eyes narrow too slowly and significantly, while the hard black mouths exchange silent platitudes. At one point La Bussière and Tristan Fleuri chew their way through the lists of those condemned to be executed in an attempt to save them, a moment of pure farce which is unfortunately accompanied by the sublime slow movement of Beethoven’s Rasumovsky Quartet. Yet the final impression is one of triumph. Trapped in an auditorium as crowded as the National Convention, sustained only by an in-house sandwich which left one almost as starving as the Paris mob, one rose to cheer to the echo, prepared, if necessary, to sit it out to the end of time, and restored unwillingly to the smallest of lives, among the sex shops and pizza parlours of Leicester Square.