sat 18/05/2024

DVD/Blu-ray: Napoléon | reviews, news & interviews

DVD/Blu-ray: Napoléon

DVD/Blu-ray: Napoléon

Abel Gance's sprawling fragment of a mighty life is flawed but breathtaking

Albert Dieudonné as NapoléonBFI

Like Proust's In Search of Lost Time, Abel Gance's Napoléon is the monument of a genius badly in need of self-editing.

In both instances, everything testifies to the singular vision of the artist - in Gance's case, his innovations in the field of film technology, from hand-held-camera mayhem to three-screen novelty in the final sequence which ends up in tricolour (earlier, tints and tones in greens, purples and reds, inter alia, articulate the underlying moods of certain scenes). But it's disconcerting that the five and a half hours of film assembled in Kevin Brownlow's digitally restored labour of love for the British Film Institute aren't even the whole of Part One, taking us only up to 1796, and that four other parts were projected before funds ran out.

So what we get is the young Buonaparte enmeshed in painstakingly created scenes from the French Revolution and location shots in his native Corsica, not the Emperor Napoléon. Think Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible Part One without the negative image of the tsar that follows. Yet Gance's Napoléon is no hero pure and simple even in these early stages. Sullen, hapless in trying to express real emotion and affection - the wooing of Josephine is creepy-humorous - but undeniably charismatic when framed by fire or seen in silhouette, Albert Dieudonné's protagonist is a magnificent creation. Gance had read multiple sources and proudly proclaims when he's based "lines" and actions on historical fact. It was a brave shot to try and parallel the solitary leader with the ordinary people he hardly notices - fictional characters Tristan and Violine Fleuri - but their part as onlookers in history, and sideline participants, can be an impediment.

Yet the triumphs are colossal. They include an hour-long sequence showing all the mayhem, mud and slaughter of the Battle of Toulon - made, of course, less than a decade after the end of the First World War. This is one of several points at which Carl Davis's score, played by the Philharmonia and including bleeding chunks of Mozart and Beethoven not best made for detailed synchonicity, is just too polite. I preferred the extra option of Paul Cuff's non-stop commentary - phenomenally well-informed, good at telling you what got cut and what was in earlier screenplays and a lost version, perhaps a bit too freewheeling when it needs to stick to the incidents directly at hand, but hugely enriching.

Needless to say the BFI have done it all in comprehensive style: in addition to the commentary, there are two vital documentaries, one on Gance in the round, the other featuring Davis on the music, and a chance to see the three screens of the Italian invasion sequence separately. I never got to peruse the 60-page booklet, but that is bound to be a mine of information too. Essential viewing.


Some reviews contain elements of such patent absurdity that they require a robust challenge. It is a truth universally recognised that The Carl Davis score for Napoleon is a hot contender for the greatest achievement of its kind in cinema history. Far from being "too polite" whatever that means, with "bleeding chunks of Beethoven and Mozart" few film scores have been tailored with such consummate mastery and skill. No doubt Mr Cuff's running commentary is erudite and insightful. However, it is surely no substitute for the glorious experience of Napoleon and its historic score, recorded in 7.1 HD sound; at long last available to more than just a lucky few.

Opinion, not fact, Mr Lyndon. At its best, Carl Davis's score is tailor-made at the highest level. You cannot, however, hope to have perfect synchonicity if you use an entire movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 25 for the opening sequence (to take one example). And what I mean by 'too polite' for the Toulon sequence is that the music does not reflect the pity and horror of war. Contrast this with Laura Rossi's incredibly sensitive score for The Battle of the Somme, which I saw/heard on Saturday.

I am a very great admirer of Carl Davis's music; his television scores for Our Mutual Friend and Cranford, among others, are among the very best (how about a recording of the former, Mr Davis? Perhaps alongside the Psycho music, also for strings only). I also appreciate that it is easier to tailor a score to 90 minutes than to five and a half hours. But still, your 'truth universally recognised' should not go unchallenged.

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