J’accuse (France 1919)

JAccuse3web
This is one of the films from the Silent Era noted in the earlier preview of Leeds International Film Festival. Now the Festival Catalogue is available and it notes the film will be screened from a DCP. This means we will get a theatrical standard presentation together with a live accompaniment on the Town Hall Organ. This will be the sort of event for which the Concert Auditorium provides a perfect setting.

The film was directed and partly scripted by Abel Gance for the Pathé Company: he is the French filmmaker who is most famous for his epic Napoléon, a film restored with loving care by Kevin Brownlow. This version of J’accuse was restored by the Nederland Filmmuseum and Lobster Films. The latter are one of the most skilled companies involved in researching, restoring and presenting early film. One of their earlier projects was the restoration in 2011 of a long-lost colour version of the Méliès masterpiece Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902).

Gance and his team started on the film in the latter stages of the World War I. Large-scale scenes of the war used French soldiers on leave from the front: some of them were to return and die in the bloody battles at Verdun. Another view of this is the recently re-released Paths of Glory (USA, 1957) by Stanley Kubrick: one of the many films influenced by the earlier masterwork. Strictly speaking both films are anti-military rather than anti-war: World War I was a text-book example of a military leadership lagging well behind technology and strategy.

Especially notable is the cinematography by L. H. Burel. There is striking use of low-key lighting. The film was a pioneer in the use of superimposition and it has some remarkable [for the period] tracking shots. Moreover, Gance and the editor Marguerite Beaugé produced striking uses of montage in the climactic battle scene.

The central plot of the film is familiar melodrama; romance and rivalry in love, but descending into chaos, loss and death. The film ends with a still powerful set of images that dramatise the devastation that resulted from the conflict.

The film was originally released in four parts over four weeks. As with many early films it suffered cuts and depredations. Gance actually produced a sound version in the 1930s. Now the epic drama can be seen in one sitting, though this is nearly three hours in length. It remains one of the great achievements of French cinema. It was also the first in a series of silent epics that dramatised what has become known as the First World War. And as in 1919 the audience will find the drama and emotion of the film heightened by the live musical accompaniment.

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