A few years ago, I took a course on Napoléon. Our final day was dedicated to watching the monumental five hour epic about the Corsican general directed by Abel Gance. The professor grew misty-eyed when rhapsodizing about Gance’s brilliance. Gance, born on October 25, 1889, made dozens of other films, but the black and white silent film from 1927 is deemed to be his masterpiece.
Gance didn’t get off to the most propitious start in life. He was the illegitimate son of a successful doctor and working-class mother. He lived with his maternal grandparents until his mother married a chauffeur; Gance took his step-father’s last name. While his formal education ended when he was only 14, Gance had an innate love of literature and art that fueled his personal study the rest of his life.
At 18, he got a contract as an actor in Brussels. In his spare time, he started writing film scenarios that he sold successfully, despite considering the cinema an inferior art, only useful for earning a bit of money. The film world claimed more and more of his professional attention. First Gance and some friends formed a production company; then, he started directing his own films. He was highly experimental, using fun-house mirrors, extreme close-ups, mounting the camera on wires or on a pendulum, and creating split-screen images. His subject matter also became increasingly complex, away from simple action flicks.
In 1919, Gance made the critically acclaimed J’accuse, a film about the waste of World War I some of which was filmed on a real battlefield at the front. It was such a big hit that he was offered a Hollywood contact; he turned it down. His second big film was La Roue (The Wheel), about an intergenerational love triangle. Never one to do things in half-measures, the original film ran over nine hours, which Gance reluctantly cut down to around four. Then it was time for Gance’s greatest masterpiece, the aforementioned Napoléon. As long as it was, it was only part one of a projected six-part movie! Gance’s innovations for this film included hand-held cameras and a panoramic effect with film panels tinted in red and blue to simulate a huge French flag as the film was projected on the screen.
Gance’s first foray into talkies was a total disaster and it started a downward spiral. He tried to use film to oppose the Nazi regime, even though he saw Pétain and the Vichy government as the saviors of France. After the war, he was pretty much a has-been. He tried to make a come-back with his first color film. François Truffaut, one of the foremost directors and critics of la Nouvelle Vague hailed him as a forgotten genius.
But Gance’s Napoléon remained his favorite child. He tinkered with the film constantly, adding a sound-track, filming a new segment, editing older parts, blurring the lines between the original creation and what remained. It took film historian Kevin Brownlow a hurculean effort to restore as much of the film as he could, which he presented at the Telluride Film Festival, with 89 year-old Gance in attendance. He didn’t just restore a film, but also the reputation of the elderly filmmaker.
Gance died of tuberculosis in Paris on November 10, 1981 at the age of 92.
Today’s expression is un realisateur de films (uhn ray-al-e-za-tur duh feelm), which means a film director. There is a separate word in French for directors of live theatre, un metteur en scène. I love the precision of French. And Abel Gance loved the power of film to tell a story that was bigger than life, even if the life of Napoleon proved to be bigger than his power to make the definitive film.
- Five Classic Musical Scenes of the French New Wave (filmbalaya.com)