The role of Roderick Usher went to another actor, but Jean-Paul Marat in Gance’s film Napoléon belonged to Antonin Artaud.
We attended the premier held at the Paris Opera. Napoléon Vu par Abel Gance, originally intended as a six-film series, was now a four-hour epic film promised to be on par with D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance—sweeping, romantic, intoxicatingly grand. The great Swiss composer Arthur Honegger had written the score. Gance had shot part of the film in a new widescreen format, polyvision, which showed Bonaparte’s invasion of Italy on a three-screen panorama. I could tell Artaud was excited for the opening night, and we were glad to be there to cheer him on.
Artaud was magnificent. Scratching, irritable, contorted Jean-Paul Marat materialized before us on the screen and people gasped in awe—even the Surrealists, crashing opening night as always to insult the show. That group mocked the first singing of “The Marseillaise” with obscene noises and mocked the film’s unabashed patriotism. Yet even they quieted when Robespierre, with Marat at his side, condemned all Girondins to death. The camera, mounted on a pendulum, swung us as if on a wave between the opposing groups as the Convention erupted in fury at this bold pronouncement. This political turmoil was intercut with scenes of the churning sea on which the young Napoléon battled a storm in a tiny boat off the coast of Corsica as he tried to escape the British soldiers in pursuit of him. Waves crashed over the head of the Corsican, and at the Convention heads swam in a violent ocean of bodies, uniforms, wigs, and skirts. A great hall was filled with people drowning in a political purge as the solitary young soldier, clinging to his makeshift mast, kept his head above the roiling waves despite all the fury of an oceanic hell. Desnos sat rapt, and apparently so did Breton.
The silence of the Surrealists did not last. At last pretty Charlotte Corday toyed with the frustrated, diseased Marat in his tub who seethed and scribbled and then lifted his frenzied eyes to her in anticipation of more names to send to the guillotine. As Artaud-Marat onscreen wrote his list of traitors, Breton’s party shouted out the names of expelled Surrealists, Artaud’s included. Then Marat onscreen yelled for privacy and his servant pulled a curtain across to conceal him and the pretty Girondin ally with a knife hidden in her bodice, and there was absolute silence in the theatre again. Desnos, leaning forward in his seat, was eating it up; waves and ships and Robespierre earlier and now, beauty and betrayal and death! Corday shoved the curtain aside and ran. Marat collapsed backward, the knife impaled in the space where his heart should have been, one arm dangling gracefully from the tub, his head falling back, his eyes slowly rolling up, then closing as if in ecstasy in a face suddenly sensual. It was obvious Artaud used Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting as inspiration and the result again brought gasps from the audience. The Surrealists burst into applause. Desnos grinned and Artaud looked offended, perhaps wondering if his former friends were cheering his death. “Bravo, Artaud!” Breton cried out then, and the actor smiled a little.