, I am immensely happy to be able to have this conversation! I love that NAPOLEON is a source of interpretive debate again, not simply the locus of endlessly frustrating news about not being able to see the thing.
I completely understand where you’re coming from – it’s a film that does make some people feel uncomfortable. Nevertheless, to respond to a few of your comments…
Gance’s portrait is deeply invested in the celebration of militaristic power, imperial ventures, and totalitarianism formed under the rubric of one particular nation-state (in this case, the “fatherland” of France)—this is as good a definition of fascism as any.
The ultimate goal of Napoleon, as explicitly stated in the film in the Ghosts of the Convention sequence, is the Universal Republic – borderless, and ultimately nationless. The whole point of the French Revolution was, for the great liberals of the nineteenth century (of whom Gance might well be said to be the last), that it put an end to the patriarchal institutions of monarchy and feudalism. The great communal chorus of the Marseillaise sequence is the film’s great expression of universality. At its climax, the editing melds a hundred faces of men, women, and children into a single visual voice. Behind Danton, the headless statue of Christ opens its arms as the wind flutters and lifts the tricolour and the sunlight bursts into the hall. The specifically cinematic qualities of such aesthetic unity works hand-in-hand with the film’s theme of unity. The symbolism of the wind, the light, the crucifix, and the tricolour were meant to universalize this message. For the German release of NAPOLEON, Gance wrote letters to the executives of UFA, begging them to ensure that the Marseillaise was played in theatres. He stated his (sincere) belief that the Marseillaise wasn’t a French (national) hymn, but a symbol of universal (international) revolution. You may disagree, but that’s what he believed – and it is evidence that you really can take the film in that sense. (Worth noting, too, that in the background to the scene when we see the adult Napoleon for the first time is a statue draped in the American flag. Gance was going to have included Washington as a figure in the US version, blessing the spreading of the Revolution through Europe.)
Napoleon points out, “for posterity”, that the revolution of the future will be fought without cannon and bayonets. The point of SAINTE-HELENE (and I know it’s not much fun to point to non-existent films as evidence, but it’s still important to know) was that Napoleon must transcend his historical and physical limitations to spread his spiritual legacy. There was to be a montage of great writers being inspired to create their own literary and philosophical revolutions by Napoleon’s legacy. As Chateaubriand said (and Gance quotes at the start of his SAINTE-HELENE screenplay): “Alive, Napoleon lost the world; dead, he conquered it”. The point of Napoleon, for Gance, was that he symbolized the spirit of transcendence – of man going beyond himself and inspiring others to do the same. This has nothing to do with imperial conquest, but moral/spiritual inspiration.
Coming back to Josephine, I think her romance with Napoleon is fascinating (and wonderfully ambivalent) material. It’s also very historically accurate (for all Gance’s metaphorical language, NAPOLEON is packed with precise historical details). Josephine’s involvement with figures of power and influence (we see her with Barras, then Hoche, then Napoleon, then Barras again, then she settles with Napoleon) is very interesting. Her backstage negotiations with Barras to promote Napoleon are a clear example of Napoleon’s fate and rise to power being out of his own control – Josephine enables him to take command of the Army of Italy. Her friends, both in reality and in the film, (Mme Tallien and Barras – in whose company Josephine appears the first time we see her in NAPOLEON) maintain dreadful reputations for financial/political/moral corruption. The Victims’ Ball is a fantastic glimpse of a world to which Napoleon is entirely alien – it’s a glorious sequence, but deliciously sadistic (it’s actually quite tame compared to some of the amazingly tasteless things done in 1794-5).
Equally, I see Violine as an interesting parallel to Napoleon. Just as Napoleon keeps the roses Josephine throws in the street outside the palmist, so Violine keeps gloves/feathers that Napoleon loses throughout the film. In their idealized obsession, both Napoleon and Violine are unequal to the objects of their affection. Violine’s idealized love for Napoleon is rather disturbing – I know it isn’t always easy to understand or sympathize with her. In the 1923 outline, she goes unnoticed until she dies in the retreat from Russia in 1812. In NAPOLEON itself, she ends up worshipping iconography – a cheap statue, a shadow, an increasingly distant (geographically and emotionally) figurehead – rather than a man. Equally, when Napoleon escapes the admiring crowds by getting his friend to dress as him and distract the public, Tristan is left cheering the fake Napoleon – not his hero, but a substitute for him. It’s a really neat instance of demonstrating how the real Napoleon is being lost and replaced by a series of images and imitations.
As you predicted, I do indeed place great significance in Josephine’s face being superimposed on the globe. Aside from the huge weight Gance placed on the visual symbol wheel to represent the eternal cycle of destiny (which occupies every aspect of LA ROUE), I think the discordant possibility that NAPOLEON confuses love and conquest is made quite explicit throughout the scenes set in the army’s camp. (All those rather weird and disturbing letters he writes to Josephine seem very significant.)
But all of these anomalous moments are decisively resolved by the final movement into an unambiguous celebration of conquest, militarism, and paternal nationalism
This is very interesting. NAPOLEON is often criticized for being incoherent – it’s quite nice to hear it being found so conclusive! On this issue, I don’t think anything is quite that resolved at the end of NAPOLEON. The final minutes sum up everything we’ve seen and hurls at us just about every image and every symbol we’ve encountered. As with every instance of visual welding Gance undertakes (frame-by-frame in montage, or image-over-image in superimposition), images are cemented together without ever quite being (thematically) resolved.
As I said before, ambiguity and antithesis is very apparent in NAPOLEON. At its end, Gance actually compares his secular saint to Satan. In a paraphrase of the famous passage in the Book of Matthew
, the intertitle reads: “And now, turning towards Italy, the tempter showed the Promised Land to which he would lead them.” It’s a wonderfully perverse thing to say of your hero at the end of your film (which starts with the child rising, antithetically, like a “black sun” amid the snow). The only thing we’ve been made sure of from the very beginning of the film is that Napoleon is destined to die alone on “a little island, lost in the ocean”. The final minutes are incredibly open-ended. After all, NAPOLEON concludes on a moment of suspense – everything lies before us, waiting for us to step forward and embrace it. The general’s career is only just beginning, cinema’s “new language” of triptych Polyvision is only just beginning.
Part of the reason for the triptych being there at all is because Gance didn’t know how to end his film on a moment of transition without leaving the audience on a high. The original 1924-5 script(s) all end the first part of the cycle later in the Italian Campaign, after several victories. By the time Gance ran out of time and money, he couldn’t finish the scripted version. The triptych is, in one sense, a quite extraordinarily brilliant improvisation. The fact that the film leaves us in a state of excitement for the future is at the heart of its emotive impact. Its power resides in the fact that we are being offered a vision of the future – of the Revolution spreading into Europe, of cinema spreading its wings into Polyvision. It’s a most gloriously fulfilling irresolution!
If nothing else, the sheer unalloyed joy of such incredible filmmaking is surely the most striking aspect of NAPOLEON to take away from the cinema. (With the almighty boom from Carl Davis’ score beneath the images, I find the moment when the eagle finally stretches out its wings across all three screens to be one of the most gloriously moving in anything I have ever seen.) The final minutes are, as you say, the ne plus ultra
of technical achievement and visual splendour. Gance is saying “Look what cinema can do!” As he later wrote of his plans for LA FIN DU MONDE, NAPOLEON “opens its arms of imagery to the world”.
I honestly don’t think that guilt or uneasiness is anything that someone would inevitably take away with them from NAPOLEON. It’s certainly not the only way of looking at it. Alas, I don’t think there’s anything I can say to make someone like
the film if it’s not to their taste. I can only highlight what I feel is the immensely positive message of the film and the kinds of ideas its maker wanted to express.
At any rate, given my interpretation of what has survived (i.e., not unrealized plans for future films), I’m not sure I would want anyone to “change the world,” as you put it, under the terms presented by Gance; I would be too afraid of summary execution!
NAPOLEON isn’t asking its audience vote for a specific party or person in 1927 (Napoleon is a historical figure), it isn’t asking anyone to invade another country (warfare is portrayed in the most brutal terms), it isn’t inciting anyone to violence (ditto) – the point of the film (and, for Gance, of cinema itself) is to generate enthusiasm. Not enthusiasm directed towards a particularly definable goal, but simply the enthusiasm to change. It isn’t asking you to conform, simply to take inspiration. To put it in absurdly inadequate terms, I feel genuinely unthreatened by this film (I should say that I don’t really find any form of cinema threatening). When I say NAPOLEON makes me want to change the world, I really do mean that. I don’t mean I want to buy a pair of size 11 jackboots and annex my neighbour, I mean that I want to go out into the world and do something – create something, make a difference. That’s what I take from the film.
Eesh… well, I apologize for rattling on for some time – I hope I haven’t sounded too pompous or polemical. If I keep talking, it’s because it’s so rare I get the chance to have such a stimulating discussion
Plus, in the time it’s taken for me to write this, we’ve all moved a little closer to seeing a new restoration of NAPOLEON.
[sound of additional time passing]