Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927)

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One of the few films for which you can employ the term “epic” with absolute confidence, Abel Gance’s 1927 magnum opus Napoléon is a triumphant crescendo of the late silent era which cannot help but fill me with a certain resentment at the introduction of sound to cinema at all (or, at the very least, to the blockbuster). Over-optimistically intended as merely the first part of a six-film-series, documenting the whole of the French Emperor’s life, Napoléon covers his school days to the invasion of Italy, over a five-and-a-half-hour that flies by, balanced well enough as to leave the spectator wanting more, purely on the basis of not wanting to leeave that world just yet.

However, to maintain circus analogies, one might describe Gance’s directorial method not merely as a balancing act, or even juggling but perhaps a veritable flying trapeze act between historical documentation, speculative dramatisation, superimposition, multiple exposure, unchained camera techniques and multi-screened “polyvision.” Thus, Napoléon achieves a breathtaking simultaneous marriage of celebrating France’s greatest moments of yesteryear with a vibrantly modernist format that proffers a knowing and participatory form of phenomenological reception over any standard suspension of disbelief. This is not the “transparent cinema” that so draws Godard’s ire; rather, by taking the impressionist mode of representation and signification, and expanding to it beyond-Griffith grandeur, this is truly the climax of the blockbuster’s existence as a form of genuine experimentation.

Perhaps the one and only pitfall lies in Napoleon himself – by no means at all in Albert Dieudonné’s performance, which is second only to the incredible child actor Vladimir Roudenko’s portrayal of the child Bonaparte – but in one aspect of his portrayal. Namely, Gance’s choice to use, wherever possible, genuine quotation, combined with the protagonist’s typical laconism results in a character who is enigmatically, stoically silent, who then occasionally blurts out such prideful remarks as “I am the revolution!” This establishes a certain point of confusion between the historical and the symbolist Bonaparte which inevitably results in him remaining perhaps a too-unknowable character for someone I just spent 5 and a half hours with.

However, the knowledge that this was intended as the first in a much longer series of films investigating his life leads me to the satisfied conclusion that we would have gained more insight, had Gance been able to finance such a titanic feat. Even so, my sadness at the absence of its sequels is not for lack of a sense of completion, but merely the eager desire for more. At least we have this!

****1/2

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Hard to Be a God (Alexei German, 2013)

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“God…If you exist…Please stop me.”

It was impossible, in the days leading up to seeing Hard to Be a God, not to think of it in terms of Tarkovsky. Sharing authors with Stalker, and a setting not unlike Andrei Rublev, I assumed I’d be on similar ground. Five minutes in, however, it became clear we were walking through a profoundly distinct territory.

Hard to Be a God is no Tarkovsky film. It is nastier, uglier, squelchier, more unforgiving, more visceral and with an entirely different philosophy of humanity as it perceives a world made of mud, shit, piss, and blood. Concepts of human dignity are met with undying cynicism, as we would expect better from animals than we see from these people (being not from Earth, their status as “human beings” falls into a degree of pedantic uncertainty, as well as a moral one).

We follow the stumbling journey of the scientist known mistakenly as Don Rumata, believed to be the son of a pagan god, navigating through the city of Arkanar, rendered a pogrom in a pigsty by a culture of brutal suppression of anything that gives the slightest nod towards Renaissance, as he engages in the strangest, adulterous relationship with this code of ethics that, above all, precludes him from interfering violently with the practices of this unnamed planet’s deranged inhabitants, eventually breaking it fully.

As primitivists, who drown letter-writers in latrines, clash with zealots who lacquer hanged men, opposing factions mirror and seem to blend into one another. Major political shifts seem to take place, invisibly within ellipses, and throwaway lines relating to incomplete abstracts seem to repeat endlessly. This world seems devoid of linearity, and we as spectators and Rumata too seem to feel trapped in a state of defeatist, relentless perpetuity – an inescapable present tense of brutal squalor.

Hard to Be a God offers not a satisfying story, but a deeply astute insight into just how unsatisfying it may be for God to oversee and interact with us, after all. This film is a direct line to the ultimate thankless task that perhaps warrants more comparisons to the sisyphean angst of Woman of the Dunes or the woefully determined reparative violence of The Virgin Spring than the earnest spiritualism of the better known master of Russian cinema. This is a film very much worth watching, just don’t expect to leave happy.

****1/2