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Overview for Abel Gance
Abel Gance

Abel Gance


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Also Known As: Abel Perethon Died: November 10, 1981
Born: October 25, 1889 Cause of Death: pulmonary embolism
Birth Place: Paris, FR Profession: Director ... director screenwriter actor playwright lawyer's clerk


Abel Gance is universally recognized as one of the greatest directors in history. Often compared with Erich von Stroheim for his talent, extravagence, imagination and ego, his experiments in camera movement, editing, and cinematography exceeded anything being done by his contemporaries and redefined the parameters of film discourse. But he often provoked animosity promoting his own genius and aggravated producers by running over budget on ever-expanding projects. Finally, like von Stroheim, the advent of sound prevented Gance from realizing his ambitions.

Initially drawn to the theater, Gance began writing scripts purely to support himself. According to historian Keven Brownlow, Gance had little regard for film at this time: "I thought they were infantile and stupid... of no artistic value." In 1910 he contracted tuberculosis but managed to overcome it, returning to Paris in good health but also in poverty. In 1911 he directed his first film, "La Digue" and founded a production company, Le Film Francais, going bankrupt after only four films. In 1914, he submitted his play "La Victoire de Samothrace" to Sarah Bernhardt. She would have appeared in it but the war broke out, closing theaters and ending Gance's theatrical career.

The war over, Gance quickly emerged as the most promising young director in France. After writing and directing several routine scripts, Gance made in 1915 the short, "La Folie du Dr. Tube" (the earliest existing work of Gance's) whose numerous optical effects--including shooting through distorting mirrors to suggest mental confusion--made the producer reluctant to release it. Between 1916 and 1919 he made a dozen films including "Les Gaz mortels" and "Barberouse" (both 1916), but it was "Mater Dolorosa" (1917) which first brought him commercial success. Despite a routine plot involving a love triangle, Gance's direction--which again emphasized the central characters' mental states--attracted much attention. Pretentious but successful, "La Dixieme Symphonie" (1918) recounted the life of a suffering, misunderstood composer. And then came "J'accuse!" (1918), a film for which Gance received international acclaim. Intended as a recruiting film, "J'accuse!" was made with the cooperaton of the French army. When the war ended before its completion, Gance transformed it into an anti-war drama which was released shortly after the Armistice. In its most celebrated sequence, thousands of dead soldiers rise from the battlefield and march through the countryside to see if their sacrifice was warranted.

These last two films established Gance as the leading French director of his day. His next two features suggest he may have been the greatest director in Europe. "La Roue"'s (1922) story concerns a railroad engineer named Sisif (combining Sisyphus, Oedipus and Lear), the incestuous passion he shared with his son for his adopted daughter, and his desperate attempts to repress that passion. Like Gance's previous work, "La Roue" was unabashedly melodramatic and pompous, the title referring to train wheels, the wheel of fortune and a Victor Hugo quote which preceded the story. But the level of technical daring was so breathtaking that Jean Epstein called "La Roue ""the formidable cinematic monument in whose shadow all French cinematic art lives and believes." Gance spent six months on the script and an entire year shooting on location. Then came tragedy: Gance's wife died of tuberculosis the day he finished shooting. He mourned in the US where he met D.W. Griffith at the New York premiere of "J'accuse!." Griffith was so impressed he invited Gance to his studio. As a result of this encounter, Gance spent an additional year reediting "La Roue." Filled with contradictions, it also contains sensational climaxes and truly lyrical moments. Among the innovations: rhetorical figuring; dramatic lighting effects; sophisticated editing used for inserts, flashbacks, and parallel action; and dazzling rhythmic montage so extraordinary that when Russian directors Eisenstein and Pudovkin visited France they thanked Gance for having taught them editing.

After directing his friend Max Linder in a short, "Au secours!" (1923), Gance undertook his most ambitious project. "Napoleon vu par Abel Gance" (1927) is a landmark film, as ambitious and daring as the man it portrays. Gance initially conceived a six-part epic presenting all major events of Bonaparte's life filmed at their original locations. The final film (originally six hours) amounts to only the first section, focusing on Napoleon's early years. Curiously, Gance juxtaposed explicit historical references to fictitious characters and events; the overall impression is that Napoleon was the fulfillment of the French Revolution. Nevertheless, a superb cast including Albert Dieudonne (Napoleon), Antonin Artaud (Marat), Peirre Batcheff (Hoche) and Gance (Saint-Just) delivered magisterial performances and there are numerous extraordinary moments, among them: the snowball fight at Brienne College; the introduction of the "Marsaillaise"; the twin storms--Napoleon sailing back to France intercut with the "political storm" at the Convention; the triumphant entry of his army into Italy. This final sequence demonstrates a revolutionary technique, Gance's own Polyvision--the screen converts into a triptych, sometimes revealing one widescreen image, at other times juxtaposing three separate images. Yet this is only the most notable of a whole series of spectacular technical achievements: the use of rapid montage, lighting effects, masking, tinting, superimpositions, handheld camerawork, cameras mounted to anything moving (horses, a pendulum, a toboggan, cameramen). In short, Gance experimented with virtually every aspect of the medium. Hailed as a true masterpiece, "Napoleon" disappeared from circulation within a year of its release, in part because the French film industry was unwilling to support the necessary special screening facilities.

In 1930 Gance made "La Fin du monde" about a comet hurtling toward the earth. Conceived as a silent film to showcase Polyvision, it was instead post-synchronized, taken out of Gance's hands and ruined. Its disastrous reception shattered Gance's career. The freedom Gance enjoyed during the 1920s, when the disorganized state of film production allowed certain individuals to develop projects in relatively unrestricted conditions, was over. Studios tightened production control to offset the cost of sound technology and generally shifted to smaller, more politically engaged projects. Gance's grandiose melodramas were no longer possible and he was obliged to make uninspired commercial productions. He remained active, alternating between sound remakes of his own works ("Mater Dolorosa" 1932, "Napoleon Bonaparte" 1934, "J'accuse!" 1937) and adaptations of popular plays and novels ("La Dame aux Camelias" 1934; "Roman d'un jeune homme pauvre" 1935). In the mid-30s Gance again focused on romantic heros in "Lucrece Borgia" (1935) and "Un grand amour de Beethoven" (1936). Then came the embarrassing "Venus aveugle" (1940), followed by the more tolerable "Capitaine Fracasse" (1942). But when he left France for Spain in 1943 to escape the Nazis, his career abruptly ended. Twelve years passed before his next completed feature, "La Tour de Nesle" (1954). Though unremarkable, its release renewed interest in Gance's work, notably from then-critic Francois Truffaut. "Austerlitz" (1960) and "Cyrano et d'Artagnon" (1963), his last two films, were enjoyable if uninspired historical dramas. Gance spent much of his later years reworking "Napoleon" and unsuccessfully promoting a project on Christopher Columbus.

For years Gance has been undervalued because he focused his attention on style rather than narrative, because of his predilection for melodramas, and because of the deplorable state of available prints. His work is often pretentious, lacks rigor and represents the antithesis of narrative modernity. But thanks in large part to Brownlow (along with Francis Coppola and others), "Napoleon" and Gance's reputation have been restored to their proper places in film history. Having taken film further technologically and esthetically than any of his contemporaries, Gance has finally been recognized as the major figure in French film of the 1920s. RH

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