It is impossible to see Napoleon without recalling several scenes from the film repertory. An unenlightened know-it-all might rave about the Odessa Steps and the innovative camera techniques in Barry Lyndon. The truth of the matter is that, “Abel did it first” might as well become a mantra in Film 101. Without ever achieving a level of even modest storytelling success, Napoleon manages to remain legendary on the strength of its imagery alone. In this way, the comparison of Gance to Eisenstein and Kubrick isn’t far-fetched at all.
Now, I must concede that some of the mystique of the film is lost on me since I have never seen it in a theater and was re-watching the film from a Laserdisc on a 27″ TV. Thus, the famous triptych at the end was about the size of my foot and the “overwhelming power” of the piece, as one critic puts it, becomes harder to receive. Nevertheless, that fact doesn’t stop me from wanting to advocate (as loud as possible) for the release of this film. I’m about to be unenthusiastic about it, but it doesn’t change the fact that it really is a chunk of boss filmmaking that crosses the road long before many others would.
While the final triptych is certainly the most cited excerpt from the film, its best moments are undoubtedly on the other end. Napoleon begins with a short (meaning about 35 minutes in this context) series of scenes from Buonaparte’s childhood. In depicting a large, organized snowball fight, we don’t only learn of Buonaparte’s precocity as a strategist, we get to play along. This segment, along with the following interpretation of Le Marseillais’ proud beginnings, is the most organized and taut in the entire film. Slicing between moments of genuine chaos and big shots of Napoleon’s face, the audience can do nothing but hold on for Dear Life. After the first 50 minutes of the film, I was thinking that if the pace held up, it would outrun virtually every multi-million dollar action movie ever produced. It didn’t, but that doesn’t overshadow the fact that there are portions of filmmaking bolder than your deepest imagination — even today. Segments remain modern and will for time to come. The breadth of setting and stylization is difficult to anticipate. The coordination alone is admirable.
Gance tries to tell this story in a number of ways. Indeed, it is one almost told in faces. Close-up’s litter the bulk of the film, populating the most placid and erratic moments. Even without genuine character motion and acting, Napoleon is still a testament to how much bare expression lives on the surface of the human face. Andy Warhol and a few others have learned to trust the face, but more filmmakers need to take this page from Gance’s book and paste the shaky camera pages back in. Another mildly shocking element is the degree to which Gance decided to tint and expose the film. At times, the contrast and color is so intense that it is very literally difficult to understand the images. It’s not subtle and it’s not tasteful, but who said it had to be?
The thing that knocks Napoleon down from A- to B is the substance — the meat. This argument has been made before and has been over-emphasized too much in criticism of the film. In fact, I wouldn’t be nearly as upset about the storytelling if I didn’t know that Gance was more than capable of sustaining a better narrative. As the opening of the second half proves, when he puts down his bag of tricks, the picture assumes a level of experience that is comparable to Intolerance and Birth of a Nation — you have to start working at it. Gance tells you that he’s got the stuff. The scene where Napoleon sees Josephine’s face in the globe and begins kissing it. When he begins to see the ghosts of the Reign of Terror. These are two brief moments of mature storytelling. But it’s also TWO brief moments of mature storytelling out of about 2,000 possible. Unless I’m missing something (very possible), the general level of visual narrative is not high enough to sustain a 240+ minute film. Gance relies too heavily on flowery, descriptive intertitles and not enough on solid visual representation. If I’m willing to sit still for 5 hours, I want to travel. Not just drop my jaw. Of course, the counterargument would be that the dropping of the jaw must be the point and Gance probably didn’t expect to get all 5 hours in the final cut. Great. I’m perfectly okay with getting WOW’ed for about 90-110 minutes. Longer does not mean better in Napoleon‘s universe. Which is why I find it legitimately surprising that so many cinephiles devote large segments of their lives to stretching out the picture. I know I’m being that guy. But the film mainly functions as an episodic treasure box. And treasure’s they are! But, as a good friend says, “there’s not enough there there.”
But no criticism can push away Napoleon‘s deserving status as a must-see piece of art. The first 50 minutes will match the excitement level of any action sequence you’ll ever see and there are some passages that will make you want to leap out of your chair and holler. The triptych is orgiastic French grandeur of the highest order. Moments of the film are on par with The Big Parade in measure of pure cinematic and patriotic ecstasy that surely would have been overwhelming to see in a theater 90 years ago. It should be required viewing in Film 101 and “Abel did it first” should begin to enter the rotation.