The great film historian Kevin Brownlow, who has devoted large sections of his life to restoring Abel Gance's 1927 epic Napoleon, takes a dim view of this one. And indeed Austerlitz, a.k.a. The Battle of Austerlitz, has several strikes against it, belongs to several categories of film maudit all at once. It's a late film by a seventy-one-year-old director whose best work, by universal consensus, was in the silent era; it's a kind of belated sequel, the further adventures of Napoleon Bonaparte; it's a Salkind production.
Incidentally, viewing the lavish sets for this movie, we can see how the Salkinds, those roving multinational mountebanks, ran up the unpaid studio bills in Yugoslavia which kept Orson Welles from building the elaborate vanishing sets he had planned for The Trial (starting realistic, it would have ended up playing in a featureless void), necessitating the repurposing of a disused Parisian railway station. And here's Orson himself, in false nose and false, dubbed voice, playing for once an unassuming, rather apologetic character, trying to sell a prototype submarine to the Emperor. Weirdly, fourteen years later another Salkind feature, The Four Musketeers, would feature another unsuccessful submarine salesman, trying to flog a submersible to the Duke of Buckingham.
Austerlitz certainly isn't the experimental masterpiece Napoleon is: a 1960 movie made in the style of the twenties would have looked radical, but this is mostly staged like a forties film. Gance had been a somewhat plodding, creaky filmmaker for some years now, his work varying between stilted in an early talkie way and fluid but unadventurous in a forties way. But his cinematographer is the great Henri Alekan (La belle et la bête) and so there are moments... When Josephine (Martine Carol, Ophüls' reluctant choice for Lola Montes) draws a diaphanous curtain, unnatural filtered lighting tints it different hues, stretching across the Dyaliscope frame in a manner that harkens back to the Tricolor triptych of Napoleon, in which three separate screens were tinted to match the colors of French flag (in itself, an appallingly vulgar conceit, you would think, only pulled off with such shameless brio that it dazzles and awes).
Mr. Bonaparte, surprisingly, is played by a near unknown, Pierre Mondy, who may have come to the director's attention appearing in a remake of Gance's La roue. While Albert Dieudonne in the silent had been boldly iconic with his angular features and Tiny Tim haircut, Mondy is given a more rounded, human, and some how less interesting Napoleon to play. The movie starts with a joke about his height, so we're definitely in a more populist mode.
It's unfair of me, but I just can't get along with Mondy's face. He has a big, soft forehead, bisected horizontally by a single deep crease, and with that tattered fringe pasted to his crown he looks like a man wearing a Frankenstein monster headpiece. He's a decent actor, though. The trouble is, a young Jean-Pierre Trintignant is also in the film as a minor functionary, and on the few occasions he's given anything to do, he fascinates in a way that Mondy can't. And Trintignant is quite a little chap. It was a missed opportunity.
Gance shows Napoleon cheating on Josephine with Claudia Cardinale and Leslie Caron, flirting with Nelly Kaplan (also Gance's co-writer, second unit director and documentarist, above) and throws in brief bits of a more platonic nature with Vittorio De Sica (the Pope), Rossano Brazzi, Jack Palance and Jean Marais. Grizzled old Michel Simon turns up, and you wouldn't think anybody could upstage him, but the duck in his backpack manages just that, by staring directly into the lens with a serene air of superiority to its surroundings. There are scenes in England, where everybody speaks actual English but some have ludicrous French accents. But what's devastating is the concentration on interiors.
The entire first half of the film transpires indoors, apart from a few moments outside the French windows at night, clearly shot in a studio. These boudoirs and thronerooms and ballrooms are all vast, so we can't say it's claustrophobic exactly, nor is it cheap-looking, but it's definitely rather airless.
Once we hit the battlefield, the blast of reality is invigorating, but for some reason Gance keeps cross-cutting between real exteriors and studio reconstructions. Napoleon even manages to walk from one to the other in a single scene, despite the shortness of his legs.
With a cast of hundreds rather than thousands, there was no way Gance could have equalled the spectacle of his first foray into history, though more dynamic technique would certainly have helped. The lumbering quality of so many widescreen epics of the fifties and sixties descends upon the Croatian battlefield. The trouble is, Gance doesn't have the budget to return to his former triumph or compete with Bondarchuk's astonishing Waterloo (1970), with its 60,000 extras played by the Russian army, and he doesn't have the invention born of desperation of Welles making Chimes at Midnight, conjuring an apocalyptic battle with handheld close-ups. He does briefly detach his camera from its tripod, and the effect, juxtaposed with the stodgy sound-stage reenactments, is immediately thrilling, but moments later we're back to standard locked-off panoramas.
At the end, the film does managed one of its periodic grace notes, in which Napoleon quite legitimately cements his place in history with dialogue predicting the Arc de Triomphe and his statue in the Place Vendome, to be made from the melted enemy cannons.
Though this often feels like a last gasp, Gance would actually return to the subject with Napoleon and the Revolution, a TV series in 1972, so that this is merely a single exhalation from a filmmaker who lived and breathed Napoleonically.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.