Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) Transcript

“To Achieve their goal, masterpieces must charm but also penetrate the soul and make a deep impression on the mind that is similar to reality…Therefor the artist must have studied all the motives of mankind and he must know nature thoroughly. In short he must be a philosopher”

Jacques-Louis David

It is no secret that the world of cinema has not been kind to women in the director’s chair. But perhaps the tide is finally turning. In recent years, we’ve seen the likes of Greta Gerwig and Patty Jenkins produce incredible films worthy of accolades. Yet, no filmmaker is quite like the woman of the hour on today’s episode. She has already made several incredible films such as Tomboy and Girlhood. 

When it is all said and done, Portrait of a Lady on Fire might be Céline Sciamma’s towering achievement.

You’re listening to Film Survey with J.G. Murphy. I am your host, J.G. Every week, we explore the history and themes of some of the greatest films in cinema history. But instead of randomly picking films week in and week out, we look at a certain theme and multiple films that are linked by that theme, sort of like a college course. Our first section is Their Eyes are on History: French Filmmakers and the story of France.  This week, we examine the 2019 Queer Palm winner Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

This show is part of the TMK Pictures Family of Podcasts. For more content, please visit our website www.tmkpictures.com and our YouTube channel. Just look for the green clover.

I’m still wondering how I missed this wonderful film. Portrait of a Lady on Fire came out last year, in the fall of 2019. Some of you are probably thanking the heavens above that I am finally doing a film a lot more recent - and one with dialogue. Don’t worry, there will be a lot more recent films coming up - especially for our next section. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think that the only good films were made before 1950. But there are a lot of good films from that era, and I am sadden to see that they’re slowly being forgotten as time moves on. 

That being said, it was a bit of a breath of fresh air to pull myself out of the silent era, as much as I love it. The fact that I missed this and didn’t get a chance to see it in a movie theater is a bit of a bummer. Nonetheless, I’m glad I came across it. 

I sincerely apologize to my Les Mis fans in the audience, although I wasn’t planning on covering any musical, British, or American version of the Hugo novel. At first, I was going to cover the 1958 version. Then, I found the superior 1934 version on the Criterion Channel. However, as I was about to press play on Raymond Bernard’s nearly five hour long film, I happened across an article detailing great historical French films. You’re probably thinking what I’m thinking: what’s up with French directors and five hour films? Beats me. But it should be worth noting that Bernard’s take on Victor Hugo’s novel is an incredible watch, and I do recommend you give it a try. 

But, this is not an episode on Les Miserables. This is about Portrait of a Lady on Fire: a story about forbidden love and the allure of desire. 

Before we get into the film itself, let’s look at its incredible director and the history of homosexuality in France, so that we can better understand the world this film inhabits.

Céline Sciamma was raised in Cergy-Pontoise a suburb outside of Paris. Her brother, Laurent Sciamma, is a stand-up performer. As a child, Sciamma was an avid reader and became interested in film as a teenager. After studying literature, she attended la Fémis, the premiere film school in France. As part of her final evaluation, Sciamma wrote a script that impressed evaluation panel chairman Xavier Beauvois. Beauvois became a mentor to Sciamma and persuaded her to turn her script into a feature. A year later, she starting doing just that, and Water Lilies was born. 

Water Lilies was selected at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for three awards at the 2008 César Awards. Sciamma was nominated for Best Debut and both Adéle Haenel and Louise Blachére were nominated for Most Promising Actress.

In 2009, Sciamma directed the short film Pauline as part of the anti-homophobia campaign “Five films against homophobia.”

Her next film, Tomboy, would be completed from writing to wrap in just sixty-two days and is now shown in French schools for educational purposes. And in 2014, she made Girlhood which would play at Canne, the Toronto International Film Festival, and Sundance. 

All three features were coming of age stories, and Sciamma considered all of three to be part of a trilogy. She has stated she’ll never make another coming-of-age film. 

In such a short time, Sciamma has become one of the most respected directors in France, serving as co-president of the Society of Film Directors since 2015. 

All of her films share a common thread - they are about women coming to terms with their sense of self, whether that be race, gender identity, or sexuality.

She has said, “People keep telling me, "You don't like boys!" And I'm saying, "Wow, no, it's just that you're not used to them being objectified in movies, but women are so often objectified in movies and we don't care."

In 2018, she began shooting her next triumph: Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The film tells the story of two women who fall in love on an island in Brittany in the late 18th century. Now, obviously, our views on homosexuality today differ than what they were back in those days. I’d even say there are many who still cling to those old beliefs - as wrong as they are. 

Before the French revolution, sodomy was a serious crime. The last gay people to be burned to death were Jean Diol and Bruno Lenoir on July 6, 1750. In fact, the first French Revolution actually decriminalized homosexuality when the Penal Code of 1791 made no mention of same-sex relations in private. Now, it isn’t absolutely clear when this film takes place. We only know that it’s the late 18th century. Yet, even if it were set after 1791, the penal code did not protect those from public same-sex relations, which adds validity to keeping the relationship of the two leads a secret. 

Despite homosexuality not being illegal, people of the LGBTQIA+ community were still persecuted and subjected to legal harassment. There is a long history of double standards in French laws. Indecent exposure gets you so many years, but if you commit indecent exposure and it is deemed a homosexual act, the penalty was doubled. Despite Gay Marriage being legalized in 2013, there are still many hurdles to overcome. Adopting and family planning are still issues today, and as of 2019, lesbian couples do not have access to assisted reproductive technology. 

All of this is important to understand not only because the film we are looking at is about two women who fall in love, but its director is a lesbian herself. This is her history. She has had to live through it day in and day out. 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire does a lot of things that might seem unnatural in today’s filmmaking. But that is what makes it so unique and interesting to watch. 

Now, before we get started, let’s lay out the main players. This film has almost an an entirely female ensemble. We have our two leads: Marianne, the painter; Héloïse, the subject; Sophie, the maid; and La Comtesse,  the mother. There are other characters, but those are the main players. There are also two looming unsee characters: Héloïse’s sister, and her future husband. 

The unseen character can be a great device for filmmakers to use. The person who is spoken about, their spirit always present, lingering in the air. Both unseen characters provide different obstacles to Héloïse. Her sister committed suicide, and she did not get to see her one last time before she jumped off the cliffs. 

Though this is a plot point that falls by the wayside as the film progresses, it places an uneasy feeling on Marianne as Héloïse arrives home. Héloïse is coming home from the convent to take the place of her dead sister as the betrothed to a nobleman in Milan. Marianne is hired to paint Héloïse so the nobleman can know what she looks like before she arrives. The caveat being that she is to paint her in secret. Héloïse is under the assumption that Marianne has been hired to be her companion until she leaves for Milan. 

Marianne, who has never met Héloïse before, has no idea what kind of headspace Héloïse will be in when she arrives. It forces her to tip toe around Héloïse. And it all comes to a head when Héloïse leaves the house and runs full speed towards the cliffs, stopping just before the edge. She just wanted to see how it felt.

As their relationship progresses and they become romantic, the nobleman from Milan becomes the symbol of inevitable grief. And the fact that we, the audience, cannot put a face to him, makes the sense of dread that much more terrible. And let’s not forget, this film takes place only over a period of a few days. They don’t have time to take things slow or even to say goodbye. Everything has to be dealt with in the here and now. 

So, in a way, this film is a race against time. The only problem is, in this story, time cannot be beaten. That is truly the tragedy of this film.

Something that has been talked about a lot when discussing Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the power of gaze. There are several striking shots of both the gaze of Héloïse and Marianne. Héloïse’s gaze is haunting and inviting. Almost as if she can read every thought you’re processing, and you have no chance to hide from her. It’s a technique that is somewhat jarring, but it has a purpose. It’s very rare to see films where characters almost exclusively look each other straight in the eye during a scene. Natural human behavior dictates that we usually never look at one another when we talk. We’re usually preoccupied with something else. 

Here, it seems that Sciamma is physically manifesting the connection between Marianne and Héloïse. When they’re together, they are looking at one another, completed invested in the other person. It shows their deep spiritual connection to one another, as if they just had a sixth sense that they were destined to meet one another. 

This, tragically, is broken at the end of the film. After Héloïse had left and become the wife of the nobleman, Marianne spots her at a concert - more on the music in a minute. Marianne watches Héloïse, almost hoping she feels her gaze and connects with her again. But, Héloïse doesn’t turn. She stays fixated on the orchestra. The connection is seemingly broken.

Or, is it?

To understand this final shot, let’s discuss the music I mentioned. The orchestra plays the Presto from “Summer,” the famous piece of music from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons heard here. Earlier in the film, Marianne plays the Presto for Héloïse on the harpsichord back on the island in Brittany. Before that, the two talk about how music affects them. Héloïse even says she loves the convent life because of the music she would hear every day.

This serendipitous moment that the Presto plays and both of them are in attendance brings back all of those feelings Marianne felt for her. Héloïse was Marianne’s favorite subject. Perhaps, they can rekindle that flame. Perhaps, Héloïse might leave her life behind if she would just look over at Marianne. 

That’s the fun obstacle about telling a story in the first person, the audience can only speculate what other characters are feeling. We are only aware of what Marianne is feeling at all times, but we can never truly know what Héloïse is feeling. As the Presto plays, Héloïse begins to cry, perhaps remembering that moment with Marianne. 

I’d venture to say that Héloïse can sense Marianne’s presence, and that’s why she is so fixated on the orchestra. She knows if she turns to face Marianne, all of those emotions come back. The great actors tell you all you need to know with their eyes. Adéle Haenel plays this perfectly as she almost appears to want to turn. Then suddenly, she closes her eyes, as if to fight back that urge. She has a child now, she’s married to a nobleman. Going back to Marianne will only bring hardship on her and her family, considering the laws back then. Marianne knows this, but that doesn’t stop a sliver of a thought that it could work. She sadly states “I saw her, she didn’t see me.” The connection is broken forever.

There is so much more I’d love to unpack about this film, but I’d be recording probably three hours of material. That is how layered and intricate this film is. All of that credit goes to Sciamma. Her sense of blocking and where to place the camera is superb. When Marianne is studying Héloïse, Sciamma often elects to shoot extreme close-ups to find the details in Héloïse. The shape of her ear, the way she holds her hands, the curve of her smile. It is an intimate look at the subject, and a great lesson on how artists capture the inner life of those they paint. 

She also tends to shoot a lot of oners - sometimes referred to as tracking shots. Some directors, you can tell they’re doing this to look cool, but Sciamma does it purely for the actors. She lets them play in the scene, build up their own timing and play off each other. The issue with using so many close-ups is that you end up missing that connection between two actors. Since the entire film is about the connection between these two women, there is no other way to shoot this. Oners are the way to go. 

Sciamma frees up her actors in terms of blocking, as well. She lets them walk in and out of the shot. As long as she’s getting what she needs within the shot to tell the story, she doesn’t mind having an actor walk off and continue the scene. She’s still getting the reaction of the actor on screen, that tells the story enough. 

Both Adéle Haenel and Noémie Merlant give incredible performances. The fact that they are asked to look each other in the eye so much allows them to transcend acting and truly connect on a spiritual level, human being to human being. It is clear to the audience that they enjoy playing sort of a game of chess before they end up falling in love. That push-pull is forever present, and truth is able to flourish. 

The sound editing of this film is particularly interesting - and its a facet of filmmaking that is often overlooked. There are harsh cuts between scenes, where you have the crashing of the ocean waves and cut right to the silence of night inside the mansion. It’s jarring, but it serves a purpose. It shows how fleeting these moments of life are: blink, and you’ll miss it. 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an instant classic, and I suspect it’ll be studied in film classes for years to come. It is a masterclass on letting actors explore and play, and the story is so well written. It’s easy to see why Sciamma was awarded Best Screenplay at Cannes. If you have Hulu, you’re in luck. It’s available on the streaming service. Sciamma’s other films are available on the Criterion Channel.

Next week, we will finish up our exploration of French history through film with Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows.

Thank you for stopping by on this weeks episode of Film Survey. This show is researched, written, and hosted by myself J.G. Murphy and is part of the TMK Pictures family of podcasts. If you would like to view a transcript of this episode, it will be available on filmsurveypodcast.com. If you would like to share your thoughts with me on this film, make sure to follow @filmsurveypodcast on instagram or you can shoot me a message @thejgmurphy on twitter. You can also email me directly at jgmurphy@tmkpictures.com. It is possible I may share your thoughts with the rest of the community. 

I host another podcast, Obscurities of the Silver Screen with my dear friend and colleague Remy Grey. Episodes are available on Youtube or wherever you get your podcasts. Please be sure to check out more of TMK’s content including Space Stuff, Look Ma, No Helmet, and Inner Idiot Child. All shows are free to watch on TMK’s YouTube channel. Just look for the green clover.

Thank you for listening, and I look forward to next week’s discussion

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) Transcript

“as a film work of art this takes precedence over anything that has so far been produced. It makes worthy pictures of the past look like tinsel shams. It fills one with since intense admiration that other pictures appear but trivial in comparison.

“it is the gifted performance of Maria Falconetti as the Maid of Orleans that rises above anything in this artistic achievement.”

Mordaunt Hall, the New York Times.

The film has been butchered by clergymen, the French government, and banned in Britain. It has been lost and rediscovered. 

This is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion Of Joan Of Arc.

You’re listening to Film Survey with J.G. Murphy. I am your host, J.G. Every week, we explore the history and themes of some of the greatest films in cinema history. But instead of randomly picking films week in and week out, we look at a certain theme and multiple films that are linked by that theme, sort of like a college course. Our first section is Their Eyes are on History: French Filmmakers and the story of France.  This week, we examine the 1928 silent film The Passion Of Joan Of Arc.  

This show is part of the TMK Pictures Family of Podcasts. For more content, please visit our website www.tmkpictures.com and our YouTube channel. Just look for the green clover.

The Story of the Passion of Joan of Arc is certainly a roller coaster. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to this episode. And I’m so glad the Criterion Channel exists; making this and countless other great films available for streaming. But before we get into the film itself, let’s take a look at Carl Theodor Dreyer.

Dreyer was born in Copenhagen, Denmark (a fact that will later prove to hurt The Passion of Joan of Arc). His birth mother was an unmarried Scanian maid named Josefine Bernhardine Nillson, and he was put up for adoption by his birth father, Jens Christian Torp, a married Danish farmer living in Sweden. Torp happened to employ Dreyer’s mother at his farm, making Dreyer an illegitimate child - sound familiar? At the age of 2, Dreyer was adopted by Carl Theodor and Inger Marie Dreyer. According to Danish practice, senior and junior are not added to names to distinguish one from the other. So, Dreyer shared his adoptive father’s name. 

Dreyer did not have a happy childhood, later recalling that his parents “constantly let me know that I should be grateful for the food I was given and that I strictly had no claim on anything, since my mother got out of paying by lying down to die.” 

In the 19-teens, Dreyer found himself writing title cards for silent films at Nordisk Film. As the 1920s came about Dreyer began directing films such as The Parson’s Widow, Leaves from Satan’s Book, and Master of the House. Each of his first eight films saw limited success, and he decided to move to France and join the industry there. When he arrived, he met the likes of Jean Cocteau and Jean Hugo. 

The Société Gėnėrale des Films invited Dreyer to make a film, and he pitched ideas about Marie Antoinette, Catherine de Medici, and Joan of Arc. The production company and Dreyer eventually decided on the project by drawing matches. Joan of Arc won. 

Joan was a smart choice for the time given how topical she was. After The Great War, Joan was canonized as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church and adopted as one of the patron saints of France. She symbolizes bravery and continues to remain a popular figure in all forms of art. 

Dreyer spent over a year and a half carefully researching the life of Joan, basing the script off of the original transcript of her trial and execution. He condensed 18 months and 29 interrogations into one scene. Jospeh Delteil’s book Jeanne d’Arc was also credited as a source, though nothing of his book was used in the finished film. 

Now that the writing stage was completed, Dreyer needed to find his heroine. He attended a performance of Victor Margueritte’s La Garçonne, starring Renée Jeanne Falconetti. Dreyer was unimpressed, but decided to return the next day. It was during his second viewing that he saw something in Falconetti that he felt he could tap into and get the performance he needed for the film. He asked her to do some screen tests, without makeup. The tests sold him on the idea, and he offered the part to Falconetti. Falconetti, on the other hand, secretly hoped that she would not have to cut her hair or forgo make-up. In the end, her head was shaven and she displayed a bare face. 

Dreyer was a reported tyrant on the set, and famously treated Falconetti harshly. He would make her kneel on painful stone and omit any and all emotion from her face. He would do take after take after take of the same shot. If he was having difficulties explaining himself to her, Dreyer would turn bright red and stammer. 

The film’s release was delayed due to the efforts of many French nationalists to halt the release entirely. They did not like the fact that Dreyer was neither French nor catholic, therefore they thought he could not do Joan of Arc justice. Before its premiere, the Archbishop of Paris and government censors made extensive cuts to the film. 

In December of 1928, the original negative was destroyed in a fire in Berlin, to which only a few copies existed. Dreyer made a second cut of the film with alternate and unused takes. That version was also destroyed in a lab fire in 1929. As time marched on, it became increasingly difficult to find copies of either version. 

In 1951, Joseph-Marie Lo Duca found a copy of Dreyer’s second cut, and made significant changes. Among them were the addition of a Baroque score and replacing many inter titles with subtitles. Despite Dreyer’s objection, this version was the only one available for many years. 

In 1981, an employee of the Dikemark Hospital, a mental institution in Oslo, came across several film canisters in a janitor’s closet labeled as “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” The canisters were sent to the Norwegian Film Institute and examined three years later. Remarkably, this turned out to be Dreyer’s original cut before the government and church censorship. No one knows how the copy wound up in Olso, but film historians believe that the director of the institution may have requested a special copy, given that he was a published historian. That copy is what is available today, for your viewing pleasure.

Well, that was indeed a strange and long history. But, I gotta say I’m glad the original film was eventually found. Whatever it was critics originally saw and praised back in 1928 cannot hold a candle to the film that exists today.

In its simplest form, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a story about hypocrisy, conformity, and the consolidation of power. Dreyer, a protestant, probably had issues with the papacy and the catholic church as a whole. Speaking as someone raised in the catholic tradition, I understand what he is saying. 

In orders to understand, let’s explore the way in which Dreyer made the film look. The cinematography in this film is claustrophobic, and I mean that in the best way possible. It is deliberately claustrophobic as it is shot primarily in extreme close-ups. Not only does this give the film a certain intimacy, but it puts the audience in the place of its heroine. Joan feels the walls closing in on her as these men berate her and tell her how naive she is. They want to make her feel small, and Dreyer conveys this by mainly shooting Falconetti from above, and pointing the camera downward.

In contrast, most of the clergymen are shot from below, pointing upward. This gives them a sense of untouchability. They are above her, they are closer to heaven than her - or so they think. 

The cinematography gives way to the power dynamic in the film, and Dreyer’s comments on the consolidation of power as it relates to the Church. For centuries, only priests could read and interpret the Bible, maintaining the idea that only they could have a higher connection to God. While the reason for trying Joan was because she wore men’s clothes - against the law back then - it is clear that Dreyer is making the case they were more enraged at the fact that she spoke to God directly. 

Questions concerning the look of St. Michael, if he was naked, if he had a halo - the way they were taught he should look - only gives more agency to this idea. For them, it is all about control. They cannot let people think that some country girl is deemed more worthy of God than they are. They must maintain the illusion that they alone can speak to God in order to control the masses. If people start thinking anyone can talk to God, you invite free thinking - always a danger to an oligarchy and theocracy. That is why it is so important for the clergy to denounce her and why they constantly tell her she is a steward of the devil. 

They use two major tools those in power use to maintain their standing: deception and intimidation. 

They continually try to deceive Joan to get her to think they are actually on her side. This is evident when one particular priest claims he believes her and presents to her a forged letter signed by King Charles telling her to believe the priest. The hope is that she will tell him the truth - or rather, what they want to hear. 

Then they try to intimidate her: they show her their instruments of torture in an effort to pull a confession out of her. At first, it works. She signs a confession saying she did not receive a message from God and that she is guilty of wearing mens clothes. However, she later recants - she cannot tell a lie; even if it means losing her life. 

Perhaps, she is closer to God than they are, seeing as how she stays true to herself. The clergy, on the other hand, are only concerned with power. They are greedy for it, and there is no way a nineteen year old girl will get in their way. Thought she has been given great knowledge, knowledge is power, and only the few in the church deem it appropriate that they possess that power.

They continue to intimidate later in the film. While Joan is being burned at the stake, many onlookers show their support for her. This leads to prison guards attacking the onlookers, punishing them for speaking up in defense of Joan. 

It is a common theme throughout the film: those who come to her defense are routinely silenced. It is another issue Dreyer seems to be bringing to light: conformity. Everyone must think the same, do the same, pray to the same god. 

In the initial trial, two priests try to make a case that Joan is telling the truth and that there is no reason to think she is lying. One is escorted out of the room, the other is shouted to silence. It is clear that the Church was intent on punishing Joan no matter what. You either get in line or risk suffering the same fate. 

All of this feeds into the hypocrisy of the church; it is almost self-explanatory. The Catholic Church murdered this nineteen year old girl because she claimed to receive a message from God. Then they turn around and proclaim her a martyr, and a saint nearly 500 years later. Yet, no apology was given. They did not recognize their own misdeeds. And now they glorify her as one of the purest people to ever live. 

In reality, her execution was political, as the bishop who condemned her was pro-English. And perhaps Dreyer is disgusted at the political nature of her death in the name of God. For those who are students of the bible, God is not partial to a single country. Perhaps, something Dreyer felt to his core.

The acting in this film is something to marvel at. Falconetti is truly incredible and raw in this performance. It is absolutely heart breaking to watch as we the audience get a sense that she truly is just a young woman trying to do the right thing. Her gaze is often haunting, as if she is in a trance. Perhaps receiving messages from God at all times. 

Dreyer played it smart. He didn’t want Faclonetti to wear any make-up. He wanted this film to look real, as if the audience is transported back to the 15th century. There is no inkling of glamor, because this period in history was not a glamorous time. It also strips away anything superfluous so that we only focus on Falconetti and her performance. We get to see her as she is, not as an actor, but as a person trying to fight for her life.

Music is a lot more important to silent films than just one person sitting down at a piano. The power of music can elevate emotions in a given scene, and well placed motifs can become synonymous with certain feelings. The main theme of Jaws - for instance - instills feelings of anxiety and fear, as we await the doom of a man eating shark approaching. The music used for the film that is available on the Criterion Channel does not contain motifs such as that; but it is a haunting score. A choir sings disturbing melodies that are foreboding, foreshadowing the tragic end for the martyr. 

One scene will stay etched in my mind. The disturbing sequence of Joan being burned at the stake is so visceral, so real, its horrifying to watch. Dreyer lingers the camera on Joan, forcing us to watch her burn. It is a common thread among filmmakers: you have the audience trapped as it is; you might as well force them to reckon with the bloody history of human civilization. I could not find any articles on how they achieved the look of it; so if any of you know, please share. 

I’d be lying if I said this film was fun to watch. It is a depressing walk to an inevitable end; nonetheless, it is riveting. If you like films that make you angry, this will be one for you. And it is easy to see why this film was so influential. Just as with Napoléon, this film’s use of close-ups was revolutionary for its time. The rest of the world recognized the power of that shot and began using it more and more. I’d still venture to say The Passion of Joan of Arc uses more close-ups than even today’s modern movies.

Next week, we will continue our exploration of French history through film with Céline Sciamma’s 2019 historical fiction - Portait of a Lady on Fire. I know, I said we’d cover Les Misérables, but I came across this film and thought it would be more interesting to talk about this rather than a story we all are very familiar with. 

Thank you for stopping by on this weeks episode of Film Survey. This show is researched, written, and hosted by myself J.G. Murphy and is part of the TMK Pictures family of podcasts. If you would like to view a transcript of this episode, it will be available on tthefilmsurveypodcast.com. If you would like to share your thoughts with me on this film, make sure to follow @filmsurveypodcast on instagram or you can shoot me a message @thejgmurphy on twitter. You can also email me directly at jgmurphy@tmkpictures.com. It is possible I may share your thoughts with the rest of the community. 

I host another podcast, Obscurities of the Silver Screen with my dear friend and colleague Remy Grey. Episodes are available on Youtube or wherever you get your podcasts. Please be sure to check out more of TMK’s content including Space Stuff, Look Ma, No Helmet, and Inner Idiot Child. All shows are free to watch on TMK’s YouTube channel. Just look for the green clover.

Thank you for listening, and I look forward to next week’s discussion.

Napoléon (1927) Transcript

April 7th, 1927. You have been cordially invited to the premiere of a brand new film by acclaimed French director Abel Gance at the Palais Garnier. The place is budding with excitement. 

“Do you know anything about this?” “What do you think of Gance?” “J’accuse was good, but I didn’t much care for La Roue” “Are you joking? La Roue was fantastic!”

“Ladies and Gentlemen, would you please take your seats? The exhibition will begin in five minutes.”

You don’t know it yet, but you are about to bear witness to one of the greatest achievements in film history. Napoléon. 

You’re listening to Film Survey with J.G. Murphy. I am your host, J.G. Every week, we explore the history and themes of some of the greatest films in cinema history. But instead of randomly picking films week in and week out, we look at a certain theme and multiple films that are linked by that theme, sort of like a college course. Our first section is Viva l a France: French Filmmakers and the story of France.  This week, we examine Abel Gance’s 1927 epic Napoléon.  

This show is part of the TMK Pictures Family of Podcasts. For more content, please visit our website www.tmkpictures.com and our YouTube channel. Just look for the green clover.

Napoléon is sort of a holy grail in the film world. There are to date thirty different versions of the film, ranging in runtimes as long as nine hours and twenty-two minutes to as short as one hour and fifty-one minutes. It has only be exhibited three times in the United States, in 1929, 1980, and 2012. The version we will be focusing on today is the most current and most accurate version: Kevin Brownlow’s 2004 edit - with a daunting run time of five hours and thirty-two minutes.

The blu-ray that I own is not even available for sale in the United States. I had to buy the film from BFI in the UK and buy a region free blu-ray player. Over $200 in total just to watch one film. “Why?” You might be asking. “Is it really that good?” After viewing it, I can answer with a definitive “yes!” Now, I am not an entirely insane person. I did not sit down for nearly six hours straight and watch this film. I may be able to sit through a six hour baseball game - Game 2 of the 2014 NLDS between my beloved San Francisco Giants and the Washington Nationals - but I will be the first to admit that even two hours is long for a silent film. I watched this over a period of about four days; one act a day. What are my thoughts? We’ll get to that in a moment. First, I’d like to briefly discuss the history of the film. This is the story of Napoléon. 

Well, I’m certainly not going to discuss the man, himself. There is plenty of literature to read on the emperor including The Campaigns of Napoléon by David G Chandler and With Eagles to Glory: Napoléon and His German Allies in the 1809 Campaign by John H Gill.

No, I want to focus on Abel Gance, the director of Napoléon. Gance was born in Paris in 1889 as the illegitimate son of doctor Abel Flamant, and working class mother Françoise Péréthon. He spent his early childhood with his maternal grandparents in the coal mining town of Commentry in central France. At the age of eight, he returned to Paris to be with his mother and her new husband Adolphe Gance, whose last name he took up.

Gance left school at the age of 14 and eventually found himself in the theater. At 18, he joined the Théâtre Royal du Parc in Brussels. Gance, who at first though of cinema as “infantile and stupid,” was drawn into the industry due to poverty. Gance would direct films such as La Digue, La Folie de docteur Tube, and Mater dolorosa. The later was a commercial success. During the Great War, Gance directed J’Accuse, using real footage from battles that he had shot during his brief stint. The film, which confronts the waste and suffering the war had wrought, brought him international acclaim. His next film, La Roue, would influence countless contemporary directors; utilizing a rapid cutting technique in the editing room. The original film  ran for nearly nine hours - over 32 reels of film, but it was eventually edited down to 150 minutes. The 2019 restoration runs nearly seven hours in total.

Which brings us to the film of the hour: Napoléon. Gance originally wanted to make six films from Bonaparte’s early life to his death; however, he spent all of the money raised on the first film. The film utilizes a multitude of experimental techniques from rapid cutting, hand-held cameras, superimposition of images, and the famous Triptych sequence. 

The Triptych sequence comprised of shooting an entire scene with three cameras side-by-side-by-side. This ended up hurting the distribution of the film, as theaters would have been required to utilize two additional projectors to display the sequence. Many theaters did not want to pay for the cost, only showing the center panel at most screenings.

Now that we know a little bit about Gance and the film, let’s dive into the actual film itself. Over five hours and 32 minutes, we see Napoléon as a young boy through the invasion of Italy in the year 1797. 

Now I was quite shocked at how Gance portrays Napoléon. Napoléon wanted to create a new roman empire for himself. Yet, in this film, he’s treated as a hero. The same man who would later be run out of France and exiled twice. But then it dawned on me, perhaps the portrayal of Napoléon would have changed in the subsequent films. Perhaps Gance was portraying Napoléon as a hero because during the time period that the film takes place, he was just that. He lead the revolutionary forces and was vital to France after the Reign of Terror. 

A Newsweek article by Brian Eads (link in the transcript) https://www.newsweek.com/2014/05/16/why-napoleons-still-problem-france-250223.html provided some light. The French largely cannot decided if Napoléon was a hero or a tyrant. Left leaning thinkers think of him as the later whereas more conservative thinkers regard him as a hero. Was Gance conservative? Or has perception changed in the last nearly 100 years? 

Gance was an idealist, and given the landscape of Europe in the 1920s, that idealism could be what pushed him to show Napoléon in such a light. Perhaps he wanted to make his fellow countrymen and women feel proud about their history. Proud to be french. Proud about how they dismantled their monarchy. Yet it is still very possible that had Gance made the other five films, the saga would have been less idealistic and more a deconstruction of a man who, like Icarus, flew too close to the sun. 

It must be stated; however, that idealism is present throughout the film, none more so evident than in one particular scene where "La Marseillaise” - the French National Anthem - is taught to a crowd of revolutionaries. As a silhouetted Bonaparte broods in the corner, the fervent crowd passionately learns this new anthem that becomes their battle cry in dismantling King Louis and his court. Carl Davis, the composer of the Kevin Brownlow edit, does a great job of incorporating “La Marseillaise” into his score, and it’s hard not to hum along to it. It’s a scene that inspires people to think “this is our country. It must work for us, not for those in power.” 

Yet, perhaps Gance was not trying to glorify Napoléon at all, idealistic as the film may be. Perhaps he sought to understand what turned Napoléon into the dictator he would become. The film is quick to remind us time and time again how Napoléon was often picked on by his superiors, despite his clear military prowess. He is picked on as a child due to his short stature and his Corsican accent He is imprisoned after his victory at Toulon simply out of jealousy.  A person can only take getting kicked down time and time again before he turns ugly. He is given power out of desperation, and due to that desperation he proclaims “once my sword leaves its scabbard, it will not return until order has been restored.” Therein lies the issue. What is Bonaparte’s definition of order? He did not declare himself emperor at this moment, but this is what lead him to the path. The French once again put their trust in the wrong man, for only he can claim order is restored when he thinks order is restored; or rather when he says order is restored. He then says, in front of hundreds of French subjects that He is now the revolution. 

As the old saying goes “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And perhaps this is a cautionary tale, as much as it is a celebration of his triumphs. 

There is one character in particular I’d like to discuss, and no it’s not Napoléon. This character is less of a character and more so a symbol. The symbol of the eagle. Now the eagle was the chief symbol of Napoleon’s reign as it became known as the Imperial Eagle. Gance takes an interesting approach to this, since the film does not venture into Napoleon’s time as emperor of France. He depicts Napoleon having a pet eagle as a boy in School. His kinship with the bird leads to a sequence of superimposition where the eagle and Napoleon are seemingly one. Superimposition is the act of placing one image on top of another, giving a sort of bleeding effect. When two schoolboys decide it would be fun to release the bird, young Napoleon is furious, causing a massive pillow fight. It is from here on that Gance portrays the protagonist as having the spirit of the eagle. 

Now what does the eagle symbolize?

Throughout history, the Eagle has been used time and time again. According to New Acropolis https://library.acropolis.org/the-symbolism-of-the-eagle/, The Greeks and Persians dedicated it to the sun as a symbol of the spirit. The Eagle was the emblem of Zeus. The Druids regarded the bird as the symbol of the Almighty. 

The Eagle is famous for its fearless flight and its swiftness, giving way to attributes of power and nobility. In the Bible, the Eagle is associated with St. John the Evangelist because of his direct perception of the inspiring light. The Eagle resembled roman power; and the celestial spirit in the Aztec tradition. It’s also used as the symbol of freedom in American culture.

All of that feeds into Napoleon, his ego, and his lust for power. Before battle, Gance incorporates rapid cutting between Napoleon and the Eagle to express Napoleon’s fighting spiriting coming to the forefront. His resolve and passion eclipses any negative thoughts. It happens when he convinces the people of Corsica that their allegiance should lie with France. It happens again when he commands his troops to soldier on in the battle of Toulon. It is, albeit, a little disorienting, but the point is made clear. Napoleon is fearless and swift, just like the Eagle. 

The end of the film sees Napoleon using his Eagles eye to look up to the sky and see into the future; foreshadowing his coming conquest of Europe. Fearlessness and swiftness. 

It should also be noted that the eagle appears perched above Napoleon as he rests following the battle of Toulon. It appears again at the very end to usher Napoléon’s Army into Italy. Divine intervention, perhaps? I don’t know. If that was truly Gance’s message, it just reasserts his tireless effort to meticulously craft this grand epic. 

Let’s shift focus to the cinematography of this film. Gance incorporates techniques not normally seen in film at this time, but have since become staples in filmmaking. In battles, he often goes for the hand-held approach. This gives the battles a visceral, real feeling. Many directors today opt to go for the hand held look, because it makes the audience feel as if they are there in the middle of the action. Gance takes it even a step further, he’ll use the technique in lavish dance scenes and in one tremendous snowball fight. Gance is bringing history alive. It makes the film feel alive. At the time, the camera did not move much, especially in American cinema. Directors would set the camera up and let an entire scene play out.

Gance turns all of that on its head. This film takes both cinematography and editing seriously. The camera is involved in the storytelling, rather than witnessing the story. Gance also uses close-ups as much as we do today, always regarded as the shot that turns actors into stars. Actor Albert Dieudonné knows how to milk every close-up he gets, as well. He has the perfect face for Napoleon. Stern, stoic, always planning his next conquest. 

Probably the most interesting thing Gance does with the camera is in one particular scene, he places the camera on a swing of sorts and rocks the camera back and forth the entire length of the set. This embodies the roller coast of emotions French citizens must have felt at the time of such political and social upheaval. LOOK UP THIS SCENE AGAIN.

And now we’ve come to our last bit of the episode where I give my honest opinion about the film. I had never seen Napoleon before buying the film, I had only heard of it and seen some stills. Without a doubt, it holds up to its reputation. This is not a bucket list movie to haphazardly cross off your list. It demands your attention, and has a much brisker pace than most of its contemporaries. The action sequences are probably the best ever produced at this point in film history, and there are some genuinely humorous moments. I found myself cracking up at the scene where Napoleon employs a famous actor to teach him how to be romantic so that he may woo his beloved Josephine. 

The scene that will stay in my mind for a long time is the scene in which Bonaparte speaks to the ghosts of the revolution in the empty congress. It is here he declares his plans for dominating all of Europe, so that - as he put it - everyone can claim the same fatherland. Both the technique of superimposition to give the ghosts their translucent appearance and Dieudonné’s performance mix perfectly to create a powerhouse in filmmaking achievement. 

Carl Davis’ score is breathtaking. It is what truly ties the film together; and I believe no other score would do the film as great a justice. In an interview he gave for the Blu-Ray extras, Davis stated how there was no way he could write five straight hours of new music, so he looked to who was alive in the late 18th century. Of course, all of the greats were around. Beethoven, Mozart, Hayden, Davis had his pick. Davis made the informed decision of choosing material by Beethoven to bridge gapes in his own score. Beethoven and Napoleon had crossed paths. In fact, Beethoven had named his third symphony in honor of Napoleon. However; once he found out that Bonaparte had declared himself Emperor, Beethoven angrily retracted the dedication, thinking the newly crowned dictator had lost all morals. Davis also employs the use of Corsica folk songs, French revolutionary songs, and selects from Bonaparte’s favorite opera Nina by Giovanni Paisiello. The main theme Davis creates for Napoléon is a wonderful piece of music that matches the grander of the film it inhabits.

Now, I cannot finish this episode without discussing the Triptych. It is truly awe-inspiring to watch. Gance wanted the audio to know the scope of these battles, and I don’t think a film shot in today’s standard 1.85:1 or 2.39:1 would have done it as much justice as the Triptych does. It’s like watching an undistorted panorama shot, that’s how wide the shot is. I can only imagine how incredible it would be to experience this on the biggest screen possible. Nothing like it has been seen before or since. Shame on the theater exhibitors who refused to show all three panels. Only watching the center panel robs the sequence of its tremendous storytelling powers. 

It is a film I cannot recommend enough. I hope it becomes more readily available in the United States in the coming years and I hope you take the chance to watch it. It is unlike anything you have ever seen.

Next week, we will continue our exploration of French history through film with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Thank you for stopping by on this weeks episode of Film Survey. This show is researched, written, and hosted by myself J.G. Murphy and is part of the TMK Pictures family of podcasts. If you would like to view a transcript of this episode, it will be available on filmsurveypodcast.com. If you would like to share your thoughts with me on this film, make sure to follow @filmsurveypodcast on instagram or you can shoot me a message @thejgmurphy on twitter. You can also email me directly at jgmurphy@tmkpictures.com. It is possible I may share your thoughts with the rest of the community. 

I host another podcast, Obscurities of the Silver Screen with my dear friend and colleague Remy Grey. Episodes are available on Youtube or wherever you get your podcasts. Please be sure to check out more of TMK’s content including Space Stuff, Look Ma, No Helmet, and Inner Idiot Child. All shows are free to watch on TMK’s YouTube channel. Just look for the green clover.

Thank you for listening, and I look forward to next week’s discussion

Podcast Trailer Transcript

Hello, I’m J.G. from Film Survey with J.G. Murphy. I cannot wait to bring you this new show from TMK Pictures Family of Podcasts. 

What is this show? Well, not unlike many film related podcasts, I’ll be focusing on a film a week, giving you information on its history and dissecting its themes and motifs. We’ll talk about writing, cinematography, acting, directing - every aspect that goes into filmmaking. 

However; unlike other film podcasts, I’m structuring my show a little differently. I will be focusing on a certain umbrella theme and explore films that fit under that theme. We’ll continue doing so for a few weeks, culminating in a retrospective episode where we review the films we watched together and I might rank them, or provide new insight. Kind of like a college course.

The number of films for each theme will be as many or as few as I see fit, but I’ll do my best to keep the minimum at four and the maximum at eight. Sometimes, there aren’t enough films readily available, sometimes there are too many.

Together, we will seek to understand artistic motives, learn about history, and overall appreciate Film as an art form.

Our first section is titled as such: Viva Le France: French History as Told by French Filmmakers. We will be covering Abel Gance’s 1927 epic Napoléon, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, the popular 1958 version of Les Miserables, and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows from 1969. 

Now, you might be asking yourself “who are you?” I’m an independent filmmaker, and yes I have won a couple awards. My passion in film dates back to my earliest memories of childhood. I religiously watched old classics with my parents such as the Wizard of Oz, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The General. This passion has followed me my entire life to today where I am making my own films. As a filmmaker, I feel it is imperative to study and learn from those who came before; perhaps their perspective and technique might guide you to some inspiration. But chiefly, I feel it makes me a better filmmaker to study the great artists that came before. It’s also just great fun. I get to combine my love of film and my love of history into one podcast. And I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do.

This podcast will be available on anchor.fm, youtube, or wherever you get your podcasts. I hope to make a website readily available where you can find transcripts, articles, and other supplemental materials. Until then, you can follow the show on instagram @filmsurveypodcast or visit www.tmkpictures.com Just look for the green clover. 

I openly invite your thoughts and feelings about any of the films I’ll be covering. You may reach me through the instagram page, my twitter account @thejgmurphy or by emailing me directly at jgmurphy@tmkpictures.com. I might even feature a few comments on the show.

Thank you for listening, and I look forward to our discussions. 

Contact Us
Have thoughts on the films we cover? Want me to expand on some thoughts? Suggestions? I'd love to hear them! Just email me or reach out on social media. Follow the show on instagram @filmsurveypodcast. You can also follow me directly on Instagram and Twitter @thejgmurphy
jgmurphy@tmkpictures.com


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