Thursday, December 5, 2013


An absolute privilege to attend the once-a-decade showing of Abel Gance's 1927 Napoleon at the Royal Festival Hall last Saturday with a score conducted by Carl Davis; to listen to the Royal Philharmonic orchestra perform Beethoven and Mozart for over five hours while watching one of the most surreal, funny and brilliant films of all time. 

It was a terrific experience. We arrived at one, for the first section, a film in its own right concerning Napoleon's deeply symbolic childhood. An intricately complex snowball fight reveals his strategic genius, though he is a deeply unpopular child, mocked for his Corsican accent. Two fantastic intertitles are as grave as a childhood injustice: 'Who freed my eagle?' is followed by the declaration, 'Then you are all guilty!' This opening section reminded me of the opening of The Magnificent Ambersons. Napoleon's solace in his eagle, a gift from a bird-trapping uncle, is as ridiculously petulant a display as a boy racing around on a horse and trap in braids. Yet there is great pathos in the expressions of wounded pride. After a twenty minute break we returned to our seats for perhaps the most disappointing section, which showed the first warfare in the film. One minute we faced laughable propaganda, the next were laughing at this hero who appeared woodenly unbending in most situations. After the second, longer break, a real sense of anticipation had arisen as we came back to the hall for the final two parts. The third section was entirely different, with scenes of great pathos like all good silent cinema: women's faces, bodiced silhouettes.

Crescendo was achieved with the unveiling of two additional screens to music from Eroica (Beethoven dedicated this to Napoleon, a contemporary, until his declaration of himself as emperor revealed him - in Beethoven's eyes - to be a tyrant like anybody else). The exhaustion and catharsis of such an event had the royal festival hall stand as one to deliver an ovation of several minutes. I am already planning my attendance in 2023.

A week before I had watched Blue is the Warmest Colour, which left me reeling. I felt as if I had been through an entire relationship and breakup within one day. Particularly effective was the way the camera seemed to pan away from the central characters in times when they were vulnerable and not in control of the situation. From being safe in such close up, together, the couple seemed so emotionally exposed when the camera panned back and refused to zoom in. As the rest of the world was able to get in, we could only watch them. When changes come they are completely believable. Characters drop out of Adele's life, simply disappear, as her life moves on. Never cruelly, it just happens, one of the sadnesses of life.

Two epics in one week, then. It's a shame I can't make it three. Nicolas Roeg is being interviewed by Jarvis Cocker at the Shuffle Festival in Mile End after a showing of The Man Who Fell to Earth. Of course, the event is sold out. 


No comments: