This is my contribution to the Speechless Blogathon now underway at Eternity of Dreams.
A contemporary of D.W. Griffith and Louis Feuillade, Abel Gance directed over fifty movies in a career that stretched from the silent era to 1972, but his reputation as one of France's greatest directors is founded on three silent movies, the epic bio-pic Napoleon (1927), 1923's La Roue ("The Wheel"), and this one, J'accuse! from 1919.
Contrary to what you might expect if you know anything about French history, the novelist Émile Zola and/or the phrase "J'Accuse," this is not an early film version of the infamous Dreyfus Affair, in which a virulently anti-semitic French military court-martialed Alfred Dreyfus for selling secrets to the Germans without evidence of anything other than that he was Jewish (after Zola's essay "J'accuse!"—"I accuse!"—turned Dreyfus into a cause célèbre, an investigation revealed that another officer was guilty of the crime).
Instead, Gance tells a fictional tale set during World War I, a conflict Gance served in, was wounded during and then returned to in order to film authentic combat scenes for the film. The story, such as it is, concerns itself with a poet who is in love with a girl who has been forced against her will into marriage to a wealthy brute. The husband (Séverin-Mars, who later managed to star in 1923's La Roue despite dying in 1921) is the kind of guy who leaves slaughtered deer carcasses bleeding on the dining room table while he beats his wife. The poet (Romuald Joubé) writes naive pastorales which he rapturously reads to his bedridden mother. And the girl (Maryse Dauvray, who looks like Florence Vidor but isn't) frets by the window.
Fortunately, war breaks out before the husband makes good an implied threat to kill his wife and the poet. Both men march off to war while the girl is sent to live in shame with her in-laws.
And then in a series of improbable twists, the girl is taken captive by the advancing German army while the poet winds up as a lieutenant in command of a front line unit that includes the husband. When both men perform absurdly fanciful acts of heroism, mutual suspicion and resentment turns to grudging respect and even abiding friendship.
The rest of the movie's twists and turns I'll leave to you to discover except to say that I didn't really believe in any of them. Gance moves his characters around like chairs on an empty stage in service of a plot that strains credulity and a message that is so muddled I can only assume I know what it is.
This is typical of the three films for which Gance is best know. Any individual image or sequence in a Gance movie is as beautiful as any you've ever seen, and the rapid cutting he employs strongly influenced the Russians (such as Sergei Eisenstein) who were busy developing the montage as a means of quickly compressing events that occur over a period of time or in many places at once.
The problem is, Gance gleefully piles up image on top of image until whatever point he was trying to make or mood he was trying to evoke is muddied at best. Gance is a jazz musician lost in a solo that goes on so long both you and he forget what he's trying to play.
Fernando F. Croce of Slant magazine calls Gance's work "[f]ertile to a fault" and accurately complains that "Gance's ... experimental joyousness clashes with the film's disenchanted mood." Michael S. Gant writing for DVD Reviews notes that "Perhaps Gance, who, as silent-film historian Kevin Brownlow has written, thought of cinema 'not as a single art, but as a pantheon of all the arts,' couldn't constrain his creative fervor to fashion a coherent message." Even David Camak Pratt, an unabashed fan of the film writing for PopMatters admits "J’Accuse is a messy picture. The title (translating to I Accuse!), the director, and much of what has been written about the film insist that it is a pacifist manifesto. As such, it fails."
It's like the first time I saw Napoleon, I marveled at the beauty and technical innovations (such as the use of a handheld camera) on display in a sequence where the little boy Napoleon takes charge of a snowball fight at school. And then the scene kept going and going, for eight-and-a-half minutes, and it began to dawn on me, "What the what?—Spielberg didn't take this long to show the invasion of Normandy!"
A sense of proportion is also the hallmark of a great artist (said the man who once wrote a 12,000 word blog post about the Marx Brothers).
So J'accuse!—"I accuse"—who of what? Gance is a little unclear, pointing his finger at so many targets (French leaders, old men, unfaithful wives, the sun in the sky), and denouncing them for so many sins (war, rape, adultery, profiteering, but also of not proving worthy of the troops and their cause), that in the end I have to assume he's accusing his audience of that defect common to all human beings that makes unhappiness possible in a world of so much beauty. Which is a rather gross simplification of war's—any war's—causes, but then it's a rare artist who has ever analyzed his way to a deeply-felt response to the grim realities of war.
In that sense, J'accuse! reminded me of Thomas Ince's Civilization (1916), another ambitious film that tried and failed to explain war in cosmic terms. Not until directors narrowed their focus to real stories of the men who fought and died in the Great War did they produce such classics as The Big Parade and All Quiet on the Western Front, films that didn't need to gild the message that war is a barbarous pursuit.
As for Gance in general and J'accuse! specifically, revel in the beauty of any given moment, admire and respect his influence on the craft of filmmaking, but abandon all hope ye who enter here looking for a coherent narrative.
Postscript To capture the authentic footage of combat that shows up in part three of J'accuse!, Gance traveled with the United States Army's 28th Infantry Division during the Battle of Saint-Mihiel in September 1918.