Talk about not having a clue! I've been thoroughly enjoying my journey through silent film, which has become something of a favourite of mine and I've learned a lot. Yet every now and again something comes along to make me unlearn and learn again properly. Based on the films I've seen 1920 is something of a watershed year, the year that the world worked out what worked and what didn't at a feature length. The Germans especially started to turn out classics like The Golem and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, but they weren't alone. Yet before then were really only three things in the world of film.
There were early sparks of genius as the techniques of the medium were invented, especially by people like Georges Melies. There was a lot of floundering around by filmmakers around the world, during a time when film was not seen as a serious pursuit. And there was D W Griffith, who had single handedly established the feature length film with The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. Beyond things like A Trip to the Moon, which in many ways is not really rateable, Griffith's Broken Blossoms is the only pre-1920 film I've rated as a classic in my rating system. I wouldn't have been surprised to rate the other films generally regarded as classics that way too, but I wouldn't have expected anyone else to have made that level.
However I didn't really know anything about Abel Gance, at least until now, and that's a serious gap. I knew that he was a French director best known today for his epic Napoleon, filmed so that it could be projected onto three screens instead of one but the usual reference of 'triptych' suggested to me something akin to the religious triptychs I've seen in art, that have a smaller frame at each side making the width of the three something like double the central one. However it turns out that I was hugely wrong. Napoleon was made in such a widescreen format that it dwarfs anything made today, having an aspect ratio of 4:1 rather than the 2.33:1 that comprises anamorphic widescreen.
He also invented a lot of techniques that have generally been credited to the Russians, especially Sergei Eisenstein in 1925's Battleship Potemkin. It seems that Gance was at least a decade ahead of any of his contemporaries, and in many ways half a century ahead. He didn't just create the concept of widescreen, but filmed some of Napoleon in 3D. He mounted cameras on dollies, ran them down ropes, even on the chest of their operators effectively inventing the hand held camera. He pioneered a new style of editing, including fast paced montage shots, some deliberately rhythmic in their intent. And here in J'Accuse, Gance filmed at the front, the real front at St Mihiel, during war itself. Many soldiers appearing in the March of the Dead sequences are real soldiers who would be killed during the next few weeks. Real letters from real soldiers are included as title cards.
Even the credits are impeccably put together. The title is comprised of many soldiers positioned together so that the shape of their combined into the letters that make up the word. We're introduced to our characters via the sort of credit sequence that Warner Brothers used all the time in the early thirties but with the addition of transformation so that actors become their characters or become dogs that symbolise their character. Gance was truly way ahead of his time and has been unjustly forgotten too long.
His story here is reasonably simple at heart, but full of nuance. It centres around three people in a love triangle. Jean Diaz is a peace loving poet who loves Edith, who loves him in return. However Edith has married tough and violent François Laurin, who loves her too in his own way. When war is declared, Laurin signs up immediately but Diaz only volunteers when Edith is captured in an enemy advance. Jean and François despise each other but gradually become very close, as they realise that they do what they do for love of the same woman.
The main parts are impeccably played. Romuald Joubé plays Jean Diaz with all the depth needed to play a pacifist poet fighting for his love in the trenches of World War I. Joubé had a long career in film, from 1910's Shylock to 1943's Le Brigand gentilhomme. As a contrast, Séverin-Mars who plays François Laurin only made 13 films, three for Gance including his last film, La Roue, which was released two years after his death in 1921. The woman that both their characters love is played wonderfully by Maryse Dauvray, who had appeared on screen as early as 1909 but who doesn't seem to have made a film after 1925, though IMDb has no details of her birth and death.
Gance apparently tended to shoot one take only, but he paid attention to those one takes. One scene that stood out to me was when a couple of characters walk into a building and a little cat follows them. I'm sure that wasn't planned but he takes the care and effort to let the cat get there. Lesser directors would have just cut it off halfway and as this film makes painfully obvious, Abel Gance was far from a lesser director.
He watches the little things in every way, not just additional components that may have crept into the frame. His films are long and full of nuance of character. He has no problem leaving the camera on a face or a frame for long seconds as we absorb their thoughts. We watch Jean reading one of his works because it's not the poem that means anything to us, it's what the poem means to him. We don't hear the words or see them on title cards, but Gance gives us their meaning through the poet's face and some intriguing and very effective visuals that combine live photography with static drawings. There's a lot of such innovation here and it works very well indeed.
There are three parts to the film: the first introduces us to the characters and the story and tells us plenty about both. It shows us who people are, how they change in times of great upheaval and why they change. Diaz becomes more like Laurin and Laurin becomes more like Diaz. Many films would have stopped there, but J'Accuse continues on. The second part brings everything back home. Diaz is discharged, Laurin on leave and Edith returned, but this just provides a realignment of the characters, the introduction of a key fourth and the setup for part three. Part three is the real point of the movie.
Gance had managed to secure active support from the French Army during wartime, on the basis of this being an important patriotic film. He shot much of the third part of it on the battleground of St Mihiel, in the villages of Hattonchatel, Seicheprey and Mosec, with the assistance of French and American troops, especially the US 28th Division. Only much later did they really understand what he was making. The accusation of the title, according to Gance himself, is against 'the war and it's stupidity'. He was a pacifist, very plainly in the film himself in the form of Jean Diaz. Where Diaz was a poet, Gance was a playwright, but the character is effectively the same. This film pulls no punches in pointing out the futility of war and it's this third part that hammers that home in no uncertain terms through the actions of a shell shocked man.
I'm not going to be the only one discovering Abel Gance today. His films were long forgotten and often long lost, until the critics turned directors of the French New Wave rediscovered his work in the sixties. Since then it's been predominantly unavailable again but film historian, archivist and restorer Kevin Brownlow has persevered for decades to reconstruct some of his greatest works from any available source. I'm seeing this version of J'Accuse courtesy of Turner Classic Movies who are showing it, along with a new version of La Roue and a 1968 documentary on Gance, in the process dedicating almost twelve hours to his work. Flicker Alley will be releasing them shortly on DVD. I'm sure that all these combined efforts will help to bring Gance's work back to the light of day.
Now I can only hope that the idiotic legal wrangles that are currently preventing the most complete version of Gance's Napoleon from release can be resolved. The fruit of decades of Brownlow's hard work, the 2002 version is apparently five and a half hours of lovingly restored footage from the best available prints, projected at the appropriate speed and with an updated and lengthened score by Carl Davis. However it is unreleasable at present because of legal threats from Francis Ford Coppola who pioneered the 1981 restoration which is an hour and a half shorter, constructed from lesser prints and with a score by his father. I doubt there could be anyone watching J'Accuse who could see this as remotely understandable.
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