I have been meaning to see Napoleon, Abel Gance's silent bio-pic, for as long as I have been interested in film, so for a while, but it was not until last Sunday, when I journeyed to the glorious art deco Paramount Theatre in Oakland that I fulfilled that goal. Before it started, I knew already that it was considered a classic; I knew about the radical camera movement, the widescreen, and that it was meant to be the first part of a series of bio-pics on the life of Mr. Bonaparte. My hopes were high, but not too much: I had already seen the director's (Abel Gance) J'Accuse (1919), which I thought was rather dull and unmemorable (I might do a more detailed review of that later, but anyway...). I knew, however, as I made my way through that grand atrium, and sat myself down into the sets in the even more impressive auditorium, that this experience I would not forget.
And I was correct. This did not meet my expectations, but far surpassed them into space. I do not think that this a really good movie, nor great.
It is brilliant.
Never have I seen a film that takes such full and creative advantage of cinema techniques, or use actors to such great effect, or even manage to make me sit on the edge of my seat for 5 1/2 hours (three intermissions not included).
First off, the basics: the film covers the life of The Little General from his childhood years of winning violent snow fight in a military academy despite being outnumbered, to him being a young man and dealing with the baggage that entails: escaping from death in his homeland of Corsica, taking Toulon, wooing Josephine, and finally invading Italy, all of which he is ridiculously good at.
Now, I'm not usually a fan of the bio-pic; far too often, they end up as a checklist of said subject's accomplishments, in addition to allowing plenty of Oscar bait, and are rather dull pieces of cinema. But not this time, oh no. Gance covers the important bases of Napoleon's early life, and then some, but does it with incredible panache.
How does he do this? By putting the camera on a horse, a pendulum, or have it strapped to the cameraman. By the perfect stages of small and grand set pieces, from cooking in a drafty apartment to the French Revolution's stormy and crowded National Convention to the muddy and bloody Siege of Toulon. By superimposition, rapid crosscutting, and having three screens going for the big climax.
Through all this, Napoleon himself stands tall. Building the future dictator up as a savior of a chaotic France through plenty of symbolism and badassery. The lead performance by Albert Dieudonné manages to carry the role with great skill, showing pride and genius, but also being human, through his piercing eyes and hawk-like features.
And the rest of the cast is amazing, too. Vladimir Roudenko is incredible as the brilliant but lonely Napoleon as a child; he makes the most of the early scenes he is in. Also of note are Gina Manés as the worldly Joséphine, Edmond Van Daële as a sly Robespierre, and Gance himself as cold-blooded and well spoken Saint-Just.
All of this I saw in Oakland, and the viewing experience was incredible: what other place could be better to view this masterpiece for the first time then here, in a gorgeous movie palace, on the big screen, with Carl Davis conducting his rousing score, which incorporates the contemporary music of Beethoven, Mozart, and folk tunes, among others, to great effect. When the first act ended at around 3:30 pm, I believed I had found my new favorite move. At the end of the show at around 9:30, when the light came up and the tricolors of the French flag shown on the now-revealed three screens, I was certain.