Drama Index



Napoleon, 1927. Directed by Abel Gance. Albert Dieudonne, Antonin Artaud, Georges Lampin, Edmond Van Daelle, Abel Gance.

I took the opportunity to tape Abel Gance’s Napoleon from Turner Classic movies a few weeks ago. The film is considered to be a masterpiece of world cinema, pioneering, as it does, just about every means of moving a camera known to man. Gance was also obsessed with composing multiple images in the same frame, overlayering double exposures and disolves one on top of the other in much the same way as many digital artist do with computers these days. The film follows Napoleon from boarding school (where he takes part in an epic snowball fight) to the French Revolution to the Italian campaign. Gance composes his images in juxtaposition to the events of history: Napoleon himself is depicted on a boat in a stormy sea in counterpoint to the French Revolution, for instance.

Others already extoll Napoleon’s virtues. I’m going to dissent from this orthodoxy. A few months ago, I read and recommended Cormac MacCarthy’s novel, Blood Meridian, to a friend of mine. His reaction to Blood Meridian was very similar to my reaction to Napoleon. His complaint was that if you describe even the smallest detail of the story with soaring, transcendent prose, how do you distinguish the truly transcendent moments of the story? In much the same way, I thought that Napoleon was entirely too damn much to take. Every single frame of the film seems to be the climax of a set piece. The conflation of so many cinematic tropes and techniques in a single place in every scene in the movie creates, to me at least, a dizzying, confusing, eyesore of a movie. When the film finally slows down to compose a single image in the frame (without splitting the image or overlayering it with multiple exposures) the mise-en-scene is so obviously and ludicrously posed that it jolted me right out of the film. In addition to this, its revolutionary aspects also serve to badly date the film. Oh, I understand its importance in the grand scheme of the cinema, but understanding its importance is not the same as enjoying it. I once noted to an acquaintance of mine that experimental films are best kept short. Napoleon is close to four hours long. Like I said, entirely too much to take.