If it wasn’t for the rather wonderful apocalyptic and phantasmagoric ending, Gance’s re-purposing/ remake of his own 1919 war epic would be of interest only to students of the Popular Front period in western Europe in the late 1930s.
Jean (Francen) and Francois (Delaître) are Frenchmen fighting side by side in the trenches in 1918. They are old friends but have fallen out over love of the same woman, Francois’ wife, Edith (Noro). Just before they go on a suicidal mission together, Jean swears to Francois that he will stay away from Edith if he survives the war.
Jean keeps his word, although he takes a shine to Edith’s rather young daughter Helene (Lou); instead dedicating himself to an enigmatic project that he thinks will bring world peace. As Europe falls toward the madness of war again, Jean’s invention – it turns out to be a kind of enforced glass, don’t ask me how that brings world peace – is stolen by the war-mongering industrialist (quelle surprise!) who steals Helene away; and who used to be Jean’s line commander, showing himself way back then to have zero leadership skills.
So, Jean unleashes his really secret weapon on the world, his ability to invoke and raise the dead from the huge war memorial at Douauomont. The dead walk again as the film ends, although the last moments of the film show the industrialist convinced that another war may not be such a good thing after all, but that the rise of madness (ie fascism) needs to be stemmed.
The second half of the film is as crazy as it sounds; it’s just a pity that the first, trenches set half is so underwhelming, with some very stodgy visuals and clunky dialogue, typical war film situations that aren’t presented in such a way as to lift them out of the generic.
The second half is as mad-eyed and messianic as Jean himself. Gance was obviously very keen on averting war in 1938 – he even tried to convince notorious Nazi film maker Leni Riefenstahl (Triumph of the Will) to get Hitler to watch J’accuse.
It seems to me that Gance comes a cropper here because he’s trying to popularise and broaden the appeal of his message – the message being ‘I accuse capitalists of provoking another war’. He does this by ticking genre boxes: combat sequences, comrades-at-arms scenes, but also James Whale-like mad scientist and horror and disaster movie elements. It doesn’t really work, and the ending suggests that all involved knew this fantasy wasn’t going to avert anything, popular appeal or not.
However, the raising of the dead sequence is very impressive and utterly unhinged, using superimpositions and I think solarised film to great effect. It’s a technical update on the haunting images from the 1919 film but here we see the effect it has on a series of crowds of people as a great wind and storm of the undead descends on the world. These are images we associate with disaster or post-apocalypse films – J’accuse comes across as an early incarnation of that genre too.
A final mention, of one element I’d have loved to have seen more of: the little community that springs up around the war memorial (basically a bar frequented by the caretakers and run by a woman grieving for both a specific fallen soldier and all fallen soldiers). It’s a great set up for a truly profound ghost film, which is only presented in outlines here.
J’accuse is out in a dual format edition from 24 July 2017.