Combustible Celluloid
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With: Romuald Joubé, Séverin-Mars, Maryse Dauvray, Maxime Desjardins, Angèle Guys, Mancini
Written by: Abel Gance
Directed by: Abel Gance
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 166
Date: 09/30/2008

J'Accuse (1919)

4 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Flicker Alley has followed up their excellent DVD of Abel Gance's La Roue (1923) with this earlier film, which in some ways is even better. (Sadly, we're still waiting for someone to release Napoleon.) Once again, Gance demonstrates highly advanced technical skills for his era, even if his instincts were not as refined as Griffith's or Stroheim's. The story here is much simpler, and perhaps more powerful than that of the epic La Roue: a poet, Jean Diaz (Romuald Joubé) loves Edith (Maryse Dauvray), who loves him back. But she's already married to the brutish François (Séverin-Mars).

Gance provides innovative visual cues to identify the characters. Jean agonizes over a writing desk with a skull on it, while François quaffs beer with a dead deer dangling over his table and dogs at his feet. But when the First World War breaks out, both Jean and François are called up and we learn that there's more to both men than meets the eye. They actually become friends, bonding over their mutual love for Edith. But tragedy happens: Edith is kidnapped and raped by German soldiers, and François believes that her baby is actually Jean's.

J'Accuse is said to be the very first pacifist film, and it apparently affected audiences quite strongly in its day. Using some real war footage, Gance conjures up spectacular imagery, depicting not only the horrible violence of war, but also the haunted anguish it creates; skeletons dance over images of trudging soldiers. Gance also shows the visual, filmic equivalent of Jean's poems. His pre-war "Ode to the Sun" consists of pretty pictures of sunlight over water, but his postwar "J'Accuse" is something else altogether. It may not be subtle, or realistic filmmaking, but as far as visual poetry goes, it's extraordinary. Gance remade roughly the same story as a talkie in 1938.

DVD Details: Flicker Alley has done another remarkable job here, ranking them along with Kino as the leading distributor of silent films on DVD. Robert Israel provides another outstanding score to match the one he did for La Roue. The excellent liner notes booklet contains a terrific essay by silent film historian Kevin Browlow, who actually met and interviewed Gance. Extras include two war-themed short films from the same era.

In 2018, Flicker Alley released a stunning new Blu-ray edition, including the Israel score, but not including the liner notes booklet. A new extra is the 30-minute Paris Pendant la Guerre (Paris During the War), consisting of silent footage from about 1915, with a score by Israel.

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