34. Napoléon

April 7, 1927
Directed by Abel Gance

No, that’s not a picture of Napoleon Bonaparte. It’s Louis Antoine de Saint-Just. Let me explain.

This movie, running five hours long, relying heavily on French patriotism, and playing loose with history, was not easy to watch. Even without considering the triple-screen climax, Napoleon is not a movie that translates well to video. But just after the intermission, there is a fascinating moment of enunciation worth discussing.

The term “enunciation” refers to the moment in a narrative when the author of the work steps in and makes his presence known. This can be either through a stylistic device, signifying mark, or in a film, by the literal presence of the director on the screen.

Sometimes the enunciating act will simply remind the viewer that the film is not simply the product of her own dreaming libido,  but is actually a product of someone else’s imagination. Another effect can be to privilege one particular point of view within the story by identifying it with the point of view of the author.

Now remember that by “author”, I do not necessarily mean the literal person of the usually male director, who is in this case Abel Gance. A director himself has limited control over a million-dollar film-making enterprise, but neverless the concept of “author” is constructed for the viewer. This “author” is understood in the moment of enunciation when the idea is put into the viewer’s mind that she is watching a tale told by a distinct voice, by a creator who acts like a character both in and outside his own movie.

In this film, director Abel Gance takes the form of Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, who is the youngest, most radical revolutionary in France. He originally fancied himself an author, but after his first book failed to have any literary impact, he decided to be the author of a nation instead. Now at the beginning of the second half of the movie, Maximilien Robespierre has taken control of the Committee of Public Safety and with that, the entire Republic. He accomplished this by executing the rival Hebertists, and Saint-Just has played the role of executioner.

We zip through the Terror and arrive at the final day before the Thermidorian Reaction: July 27, 1794. Instead of focusing on Robespierre’s last stand, which would be expected in a movie about the Revolution, we instead hear Saint-Just’s final impassioned speech, where he defends the Terror as the next necessary step in the Revolution and denounces anyone who would stand in the way of revolutionary progress.

By delivering Saint-Just’s speech, Gance makes himself the great villain who has thrown the Revolution into a chaos. Napoleon will need to swoop in and restore order without losing what has been gained by removing the monarch and creating a Republic. He enters his narrative to personally set up his main character with a conflict to solve.

But Gance’s speech is also directed to the viewer, for Gance is himself an artistic Saint-Just. For him cinema is the revolution of art which promises to change the way people saw, felt, and lived. As in 1794, the Revolution had only gotten started but was already facing  ruin. In early 1927 the Age of Sound was making its inexorable march toward the border. Gance gave his epic Napoleon everything he had, as he watched his ability to fulfill the promise of artistic genius sliced by the guillotine of commerce. In his Thermidor speech, he makes his defense of the Revolution directly to his audience, knowing it is his final chance. Because though Gance would continue to make movies for forty more years, and even complete one more segment of the Napoleon story, 1959’s Austerlitz, none of these movies would make good on the avant-garde promise of La Roue or Napoléon. The vision would remain unfulfilled, because the Revolution was over.



18. La Roue

February 17, 1923
directed by Abel Gance

The movie opens with the camera already moving, traveling on a railroad car, with the title and director credit. Then the mug of the director, facing the camera, though looking just beyond us, blinking through a reverie, superimposed on crisscrossed lines of the railroad tracks behind him. A few credits, and then suddenly the action – a railroad crash, filmed with complex editing like Griffith’s but faster, more intense, because this is the modern world. We are far removed from Griffith’s now-ancient scenes of country life. And we can tell its the modern world not just from the editing but from the filth. Everything is grimy. Interiors, exteriors, people, emotions. A man falls in love with his adopted daughter, all the time seeing the horror unfold within his heart. He becomes jealous of his son’s easy playfulness with her – of course he is in love with her too. And his boss is also in love with her, and in a position to make demands of her body to him.

This is the modern world, as symbolized by the wheel. The wheel is a combination of the circle and the cross. The spinning circle of Dr Mabuse is no longer about chaos but torture. The wheel of Saṃsāra. The breaking wheel. These wheels are iron, bathed in steam and smoke, driving faster and faster through the countryside. As the locomotive progressively gained speed through the 19th and 20th centuries, this movie makes great use of velocity. As the drama heats up, the editing becomes faster, and then faster, and then, when you don’t think it can, it gets even faster, until the shots are only single frames, undetectable in themselves, in an orgasm of terror.

Of the main characters here – the worker, the woman, the artist, the capitalist, each plays a role, but none is spared from the relentless turning of the wheel. The war is over, yes, but the torture continues. Gance was spared from the war only by his poor health, and this movie was made as his lover was dying of tuberculosis – that disease seen by Romantics as endemic to the hated new industrial era. Even though the characters fantasize about the Middle Ages, as the Romantics did, it is not Modernity, or even Industrial Capitalism that has trapped, bound, and tortured these people. Rather this suffering is the human condition itself. We are all to be broken on the wheel.

Kramer, Steven Philip and James Michael Welsh. Abel Gance. Twayne Publishers, 1978.