This essay on Abel Gance's J'accuse was written by Jonah Horwitz, Ph.D Candidate in the Communication Arts Department at UW Madison. A recent DCP restoration of J'accuse will screen with a synchronous soundtrack on Saturday, November 15 at 2 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue 4070 Vilas Hall.
By Jonah Horwitz
Abel Gance's J'accuse is not only one of the earliest and best-known films about the Great War, but also a landmark in French film history. Its director and writer, Abel Gance, was widely recognized by critics and his peers as being one of the most artistically accomplished filmmakers of his time. J'accuse was the film to announce the scope of his ambition. It combines a narrative both epic and intimate, a style full of strange and startling juxtapositions, a poetic sensibility, and grand themes. It was one of the first major films of French cinema's narrative avant-garde.
Gance began writing and directing films around 1910, and rose to particular prominence during the war. His Mater Dolorosa (1917) and La Dixième symphonie ("The Tenth Symphony," 1918) were melodramas, highly indebted to contemporaneous American films. Gance synthesized the advances of pioneers like D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. De Mille, combining rapid editing and elaborate lighting effects. The results were mixed: Mater Dolorosa was a hit, but La Dixième symphonie was considered arty and inaccessible. It was full of high-flown allusions, attempting to align cinema with a cultural heritage dating back to antiquity—an ambition that was mocked as often as it was praised.
But rather than backing off, Gance doubled down: J'accuse was artier, more stylistically audacious, much longer, more expensive, and ultimately much more popular than either of his previous features. By taking on the recent war, Gance's film was automatically an "event film," discussed extensively not only by cinephiles but also by the popular press. It's a massive film—in its original release it was about three and one-half hours long—and many believe Gance was inspired by, and competing with, Griffith's masterpiece Intolerance (1916), a film that famously intercuts narratives taking place in several historical periods.
Gance ups the ante on Griffith's use of parallel editing to combine epic historical sweep with intimate drama, mixing elaborate tableaux of battles and aching close-ups of lovers torn apart. More unusually, Gance includes daringly ambiguous subjective sequences that represent both characters’ internal fantasies or imaginings. And he goes further than Griffith in attempting to overly a complex symbolism on the story with repeated "editorial" imagery that is often literally superimposed on the story, like an image of Charlemagne hovering above a battlefield. Film historian Richard Abel has likened Gance's approach to the collage aesthetic pioneered by painters like Picasso, Léger, and Delaunay and poets like Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars, in which "quite divergent events and images, both objective and subjective" are assimilated into a "continuous present" (Abel, French Cinema: The First Wave, 1918–1929, pp. 299–300). In stretches of Gance's film, the connection between one shot and the next will be serve less to advance the story and more to establish a metaphor or to develop graphic or rhythmical motif. Critics of the time debated whether such techniques were visionary or pretentious—or possibly a bit of both—but nearly all applauded Gance's attempt to expand and enrich cinematic discourse. He would go on to develop such devices further in La Roue ("The Wheel," 1923).
J'accuse's title is, of course, an allusion to the Dreyfus Affair of several decades prior, and specifically to Emile Zola's famous broadside attaching official hypocrisy. But who or what is being accused in Gance's film? The reference to Zola would seem to suggest that Gance is blaming the government for the horrors of the Great War, but this line of argument is not aggressively pursued in the film itself. The war's horrors are lingered over, and the loss of nearly an entire generation of French young men is lamented in sequences of great power—indeed, some of the most powerful depictions of war and its emotional consequences in cinema. But paradoxically, that sacrifice is also celebrated in explicitly patriotic terms. At film's end, one of the film's central characters curses the sun for its indifference to human suffering. Gance's attempt to universalize his accusation is also something of a hedge: by blaming nature itself, Gance arguably lets humans off the hook.
J'accuse is a mélange of elements that looks both forward and backward. Like Griffith, Gance mixes a style that still seems bold and modern (or modernist) with capital-"R" Romantic attitudes that already seemed old-fashioned to many in 1919. Its contradictory view of war is hardly antiquated, though. Contemporary war films still rely on a strategic ambivalence—a mix of grief and thrills—so that they can appear "anti-war" without actually challenging the varying political sensibilities of their viewers (see e.g. Fury, now playing at your local multiplex). But few contemporary war films are as ambitious or as downright strange as J'Accuse, and it's that strangeness that's most likely to impress contemporary viewers.
J'accuse has been exhibited over the years in several different versions. Gance tinkered with many of his films, re-editing them for foreign distribution and re-release. The version that UW Cinematheque is showing on November 15 is a recent restoration, and at nearly three hours the most complete version of J'Accuse that exists today.