April 30, 1919 [J’Accuse!]
The War is collapsing--like the drunken creature it is, lurching to the wet sawdust floor of Europe--and Abel Gance is there to catch the oaf, prop it up just long enough to deliver a bitter eulogy, Zola with a camera.
At the heart of J'Accuse! is an uneasy triangle: the woman, the brute whom she marries, the poet who lingers. And the woman seems almost as threatened by her husband’s jealousy (to a certain extent founded, I should add) as by the War--but that slogging butcher-shop purifies the brute, makes him a kind of poet himself--while the other, first poet’s sensitive soul--in love with the simplest, plainest beauties of Nature, finding in them an affecting, fleeting solace--shatters into insanity--but he survives, returns, and brings with him the letters of the dead (as direct and touching as the placid lakes and dales of his verse)--but more: the dead themselves, in a climax almost impossible to watch, an army rising from the soaked earth, limping home, laying accusing eyes on those who live--and who are dared to remember, both in love and dismay, the lives lost, the ghosts gained.
There is much Gance accomplishes here--incorporating actual battle scenes with earnest moments of camaraderie in the trenches, offering startling juxtapositions of personal travails with global carnage, orchestrating each scene so that, as it increases in tension, the duration of succeeding shots diminishes (and lengthens as characters fall into quietude or death)--but what I will never forget are the melancholy ghouls of war, devouring our hopes in madness and sorrow. Like the dead, the living are denied their comfort.