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Restored cut of century-old Napoleon epic to screen at Cannes Film Festival

By RFI
Europe  AFP  STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN
FRI, 19 APR 2024 LISTEN
© AFP / STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN

After a marathon restoration effort, visionary French director Abel Gance's silent masterpiece Napoleon will return to the big screen at the Cannes Film Festival in May – nearly 100 years after it was made.

The latest project to restore the 1927 epic began in 2008 when two researchers discovered different versions of it in Gance's archives at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris.

Restoring the director's original vision turned into a mammoth operation that involved several countries and millions of euros.

Reels were found at various cinema archives in France, as well as in Denmark, Serbia, Italy, Luxembourg and the United States.

Some had been lost, some damaged, others mixed up or respliced, leaving up to 22 versions of the film in existence.

The head of the restoration project, filmmaker Georges Mourier, told French news agency AFP in 2021 that it had become an act of madness.

Painstaking work

His team went frame by frame through at least 100 kilometres of film – much of it on the verge of disintegrating and highly flammable.

They used editing notes and correspondence with Gance's editor, found at France's national library, to re-edit the film in its original version.

Only the first part, lasting three hours and 40 minutes, will be screened as part of the Cannes Classics section of the festival, which runs from 14 to 25 May – the first time Gance's cut has been shown in 97 years.

The full seven-hour extravaganza will be screened in Paris in July, accompanied by by a 250-piece orchestra.

Back in 1927, Napoleon as seen by Abel Gance was technically as ambitious as its subject.

The film's reputation stems from its many innovations, including rapid editing, hand-held – and horse-mounted – camera shots and a famous final sequence featuring three split screens requiring three projectors.

Stuff of legend

With its cast of thousands, the film amazed audiences and critics alike when it premiered at the Paris Opera on 7 April 1927, in the presence of French President Gaston Doumergue. It then embarked on a world tour.

The film has long had a near-mythical status among cinephiles, not least director Francis Ford Coppola, whose company American Zoetrope owns many of the rights and presented an earlier restored version to widespread acclaim in 1981.

Napoleon Bonaparte, who ruled France as emperor from 1804 until 1814, has inspired hundreds of films throughout the years, mostly recently the offering by British director Ridley Scott. 

(with AFP)

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