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Cannes reclaims Napoleon for France with ‘rebirth’ of Abel Gance epic


The 77th Cannes Film Festival kicked off Tuesday with a historic screening of Abel Gance’s restored 1927 masterpiece “Napoleon”, months after French critics heaped scorn on Ridley Scott’s “Anglo-Saxon” take on the French emperor.

A few steps from the Palais des Festivals in Cannes, home to the annual film gathering, an eagle-shaped stone carving marks the spot where Napoleon camped for a night after his flight from Elba – the starting point of a heady 100-day cavalcade that ended with his final defeat at Waterloo.  

More than two centuries after Bonaparte’s 1815 landing, Cannes played host to another spectacular comeback with a screening of the epic “Napoleon by Abel Gance”, a work so dazzling, flamboyant and ambitious it elicits comparison with the emperor’s own achievements. 

Tuesday’s screening in the vast Debussy Theatre opened the Cannes Classics segment, the festival’s sidebar dedicated to restored seminal works from the past. It preceded the red-carpet premiere of Quentin Dupieux’s star-studded “The Second Act”, Cannes’ official curtain raiser. 

An “exceptional moment”, in the words of festival director Thierry Frémaux, it also marked the first time Gance’s original cut was shown since 1927, the year it opened at the Opéra Garnier in Paris with a live orchestra performance, in front of the French president and the army’s top brass.

A still from Abel Gance's "Napoleon".
A still from Abel Gance’s “Napoleon”. © Cinémathèque française

The world’s most prestigious film festival has justifiably proclaimed its “pride at being the venue for the rebirth of ‘Napoleon by Abel Gance’, a monument of the Seventh Art, almost 100 years after its creation”. 

A monument of cinema is precisely what Gance had in mind when he embarked on the gargantuan project. The film, he famously told the crew on the eve of shooting in 1924, “must allow us to enter the Temple of Art through the giant gates of History”.     

Cinema’s ‘Waterloo’   

The rebirth of Gance’s epic comes just months after Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” triggered a flurry of protests in the emperor’s home country. Starring Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon’s role, it was widely dismissed as a dud – or worse, an Anglo-American smear plot. 

Le Figaro newspaper described the movie as “Barbie and Ken under the Empire”, while Napoleon biographer Patrice Gueniffey told Le Point it was “very anti-French and very pro-British”. Le Canard enchaîné, the satirical weekly, dubbed it a “Waterloo for cinema”.    

Others suggested the 150-minute film was simply too short to encompass the career of a larger-than-life figure whose legacy continues to dazzle and divide.   

Read more‘Glory of arms and art’: Napoleonic plunder and the birth of national museums

No such accusation can be levelled at Gance.  

His seven-hour extravaganza, which begins with Napoleon’s childhood at a boarding school and ends with his first Italian campaign, was intended as the first in a six-part series of films he never completed. It required several dozen stars, hundreds of technicians and thousands of extras. 

The film’s reputation stems in large part from its pioneering technical exploits, including rapid cutting, hand-held and horse-mounted camera shots, and a famous final sequence featuring three split screens requiring three projectors in the cinema. 

‘The world’s screens await you’ 

Gance is said to have read every available book about Napoleon before the shooting but his film is better known for visionary cinematography than historical accuracy. Unashamedly patriotic, it is as politically problematic as it is aesthetically beguiling.    

In his 1924 address to the crew, the director urged his “unsung extras” to “find in (their) hearts the unity and fearlessness that was France between 1792 and 1815”. He added: “Only in this way will you serve and revere the already illustrious cause of the first art-form of the future, through the most formidable lesson in history.” 

Gance’s masterpiece “is not a biopic”, director Costa-Gavras, the former head of the Cinémathèque française, said at Tuesday’s screening in Cannes. “It is more of lyrical poem, a testament of one man’s passion for another,” he added. 

On the set of "Napoleon by Abel Gance".
On the set of “Napoleon by Abel Gance”. © Cinémathèque française

“I would like to be my own posterity, to witness what a poet would have me think, feel, and say,” presages Napoleon in the film’s opening epigraph, thus introducing Gance as his bard.  

The legendary filmmaker was hardly alone in acting as though he were Bonaparte himself. His lead actor Albert Dieudonné reportedly won the part when he showed up unannounced at Fontainebleau palace in full Napoleonic gear, stating that the emperor had come to see Gance about his part.   

However, their best efforts to rekindle the Napoleonic flame would soon be thwarted. 

“The world’s screens await you my friends,” Gance famously told his devoted crew. In reality, hardly any screen would go on to show his movie, least of all his original cut. The film proved too unwieldy for the theatres and was soon butchered by American distributors keen to make it more digestible for viewers. 

Back to France 

The film’s original reels were scattered around the globe – some lost, some damaged, others mixed up or respliced. As a result, up to 22 versions of the film are now in existence, one of which is owned by Francis Ford Coppola and features a musical score composed by his father, Carmine. It was shown in an open-air screening at the 1979 Telluride Film Festival, with the then 89-year-old Gance watching from his hotel window. 

The Coppola cut owed much to Englishman Kevin Brownlow, whose decades-long efforts to track down and restore Gance’s reels helped save a work that might otherwise have vanished. His subsequent, more complete cut was barred from theatres because it replaced Carmine Coppola’s score with a superior soundtrack. 

The version shown in Cannes claims to be even more faithful to the original. In French minds, it rights a historical wrong, reclaiming for France a work that has long been hostage to an Anglo-American legal tussle and finally doing justice to the work of a man who spurned Hollywood’s offers to work in America. 

The Cannes screening follows a colossal 15-year restoration effort, which began in 2008 when two researchers chanced upon different versions of the film in Gance’s archives at the Cinemathèque française in Paris.  

A film editor works on the movie's reconstruction at the Cinémathèque française's offices in Montigny-le-Bretonneux, near Paris, on May 6, 2021.
A film editor works on the movie’s reconstruction at the Cinémathèque française’s offices in Montigny-le-Bretonneux, near Paris, on May 6, 2021. © Stéphane de Sakutin, AFP

The head of the restoration project, Georges Mourier, told AFP his team worked through at least 100 kilometres of film, much of it on the verge of disintegrating and highly flammable, in a multi-million-euro operation combining detective work and digital wizardry. 

The “reborn” movie features yet another musical score inspired by the original work of Swiss composer Arthur Honegger that was played at the Opéra Garnier almost a century ago, itself a pastiche of works by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. 

An exhilarating work, Gance’s titanic achievement cries out for the largest of screens and a live orchestra. At the Cannes screening on Tuesday, viewers were already looking forward to a second helping of the opus in Paris on July 4-5, when the full, seven-hour extravaganza will be screened at the Seine Musicale, with a 250-piece orchestra. 

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