#490: Abel Gance’s Austerlitz
Over thirty years after his original Napoleon film, Abel Gance returns to his favorite subject with a more critical eye
Initial release: 1960
Director: Abel Gance
It’s funny, how time and circumstances change you. When Abel Gance was a young filmmaker during the first World War, he rejoined the French Army just so he could get authentic footage for his film J’Accuse, a supernatural nationalist screed in which ordinary Frenchmen — including the audience — are admonished for not being patriotic enough to make the thousands of deaths worth it. Eight years later, at the height of the 1920s, he would release the furiously nationalistic Napoleon, an extraordinarily lengthy hagiography that was intended to be just part one out of six, portraying France’s most famous ruler as a borderline Christ figure.
Thirty-three years, another world war, five years of Nazi occupation, and the rise of Charles de Gaulle as a subject of post-war admiration (at last by some folk) would result in a drastic change in how Gance viewed Napoleon. Rather than being the once-planned direct sequel to the 1927 film, Gance’s 1960 epic Austerlitz is very much its own thing, though not terribly different from many other period epics of the era.
And perhaps that’s the problem with this film, that it’s far too derivative, far too ordinary; for a movie named after one of the most famous battles of the 19th century, Napoleon’s greatest of victories, it sure takes a while to actually get there. Much of the movie focuses instead on Napoleon’s personal battles with his unfaithful wife Josephine as he mulls the possibility of crowning himself Emperor of France and fends off those who view him as a threat, which includes both Royalists who would rather see the Bourbon dynasty restored to the throne, and what’s left of Robespierre’s Jacobins. It’s only in the second half of the film where Gance’s talents really start to shine, as the battle finally gets underway.
Gance tries, unsuccessfully, to tie in Napoleon’s emotional battle of wills with Josephine with the far more broad-reaching battle of Austerlitz, but the split between the two is so stark as to render them almost completely different films; don’t expect a repeat of Napoleon 1927’s clever weaving of scenes of Napoleon braving a storm at sea in a tiny boat with scenes of the National Assembly in full meltdown.
There’s a lot of choices I don’t really understand in this film. Why Pierre Mondy as Napoleon? Short compared to nearly everyone else, his Napoleon is more nuanced and complex, a petulant and vain man whose only redeeming traits are a dry sense of humor and astonishing strategic skills — but lacks the charisma and presence of Albert Dieudonne’s 1927 portrayal. Why focus so much on Napoleon’s coronation? The titular battle only takes up about a third of the three-hour runtime. Why the random odd cameo by Orson Welles? Not that I terribly mind having Orson around, but his character is pretty inconsequential to the overall plot.
While Austerlitz is notable for Gance’s habitual attention to detail and accuracy, and the battle scenes are at times incredible, the film nonetheless lacks a lot of the spectacle of his 1927 magnum opus. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare a film made in the late 1950s to a film made 30 years prior, but Gance was doing things in Napoleon that simply aren’t there in Austerlitz.