J'accuse [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (30th July 2017).
The Film

“J’accuse” (1938)

After four years of lengthy war a ceasefire has been declared, leading the French soldiers home to their loved ones. Though not all are fortunate enough to return home. Jean Diaz (played by Victor Francen) is able to return but his best friend and comrade François Laurin (played by Marcel Delaître) was not one of the fortunate souls. The shellshocked and injured Jean reunites with François’s grieving wife Edith (played by Line Noro) and daughter Helene (played by Renée Devillers) to console them and try to help with their needs. A difficult relationship follows in the peaceful years as Jean and Edith had an affair while she and François were married before the war, which Jean ultimately confessed to his best friend on the battlefield. But with the guilt of surviving the horror of war and for his best friend’s memory, he decides not to continue a physical relationship, living his life as a glassmaker alone.

As the years go by and society is at peace, there are new threats of an impending war. While the youth are optimistic Jean feels the return of impending doom and must make a stand to invigorate the country’s way of thinking as well as a call to action.

In 1919, the thirty year old filmmaker Abel Gance directed the silent epic “J’accuse”, a war film that was an anti-war film, showing the consequences of war and its effect on soldiers as well as civilians during and after the war. Made only a year after the end of World War I, the film was a success with its infusion of melodrama within the war backdrop. In 1938 the director remade the film with the same title of “J’accuse”, but this time as a warning towards the impending war with approaching German forces which would later be called World War II. The 1938 is a remake in most senses - the same title, same characters, many of the same sequences. Though the two are very different in terms of pacing and structure. Much to the point they are two very different films. For the 1919 film the scenes during the war take up a large portion of the film, with the affair between Jean and Edith being revealed not by words but by interaction. In the 1938 film the war scenes are only about a quarter of the film, condensed and the scenes of pre-war or pre-battle discarded. The love affair is told verbally from Jean to François on the battlefield so the emotional impact is a bit more downplayed and more focused on the war. As the common theme is in both versions, rather than fighting about personal emotions, there is a bigger enemy to be fought. The 1938 film puts more emphasis on the aftermath of war and how the public has become numb to the notion of war because it was fairly recent history. Nearly twenty years after the end of the war, the Germans were rising yet again to a forceful power. It was time for Gance to bring back his film of grief, regret, moral values, and the high stakes of loss in war to a new generation. Little did he know how much bigger and more destructive the upcoming war would become.

For Gance the sound era had not been too kind to him professionally. His first sound film “La fin du monde” (1931) was a critical and commercial failure. His films following were safer more commercial fares that kept the bills paid but they were a far cry from the silent epics such as “La Roue” (1920) and “Napoleon” (1927). With “J’accuse” Gance was read to strike a more personal and serious touch to the film while still making it accessible for the newer sound audiences. While focused more on the 20 year period after the war, one of the major additions to the remake was a newfound interest in love for Jean - not with Edith but her daughter Helene who has become a woman. This may be one of the more disturbing points due to the age gap between Jean who is around 50 and Helene at about 25. For the remake too much time is put into the entangled melodrama rather than the war scenes and the relationship entanglement that the three characters had prior to the war, and to add the child into the mix does make things uncomfortable, yet the characters do not seem to place as much blame or hate with the newer love affair. One of the biggest and most talked about sequences in the 1919 version of the film was the “March of the Dead” sequence where the spirits of the war rise, and the 1938 version of the film also raises the stakes. Almost like a precursor to a zombie film or the dead rising scenes in “Ghostbusters II” or “The Black Cauldron”, it is very creepy and disturbing to see the corpses of mutilated and disfigured soldiers rising up to show the world the true faces of war. Using makeup effects, superimposition effects, recycled footage from the end of the world sequence in Gance’s own “La fin du monde”, the sequence is like that of the finale of Napoleon with numerous photographic techniques to showcase the grand exit to hell. Looking at the sequence from a modern standpoint, it stands out because it seems incredibly strange for a seriously toned film to suddenly have a supernatural finale, and also that some of the makeup effects are crude to say the least. But from a 1930s standpoint there wasn’t much else to compare to in terms of other war films.

As the program notes state and the prologue to the film also states that Gance did NOT make a war film for people who went through the war, but it is for people who are about to experience war, to pray for the future victims. The theme still has relevance today but for the film itself it misses some of the exact marks that made the original version so much more powerful on an emotional level rather than the visceral.

Note this is a region B Blu-ray which can only be played back on region B or region free Blu-ray players

Video

The BFI presents the film in 1080p in the AVC MPEG-4 codec, in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The film had a troubled release history like many other Gance films, with the original preview version of the film running 145 minutes, the film was cut by the producers drastically to a 104 minute runtime. The 2008 restoration reconstructed the film using various elements to the 119 minute runtime, which is what is including on the BFI set. Restored by Gaumont and CNC, the transfer of the film is for the most part great though imperfect. The black and white picture has been cleaned with no major signs of large damage though a few minor specs and dust are visible in places. When stock footage of WWI is used there are issues with more damage and less clarity in addition to the framerate being sped up to match the 24fps of the feature. This is also true with the recycled forage from “La fin du monde” having actors running at a much faster speed. There is a healthy amount of film grain visible and no major use of DNR to soften the image making this a very natural looking restoration.

The runtime of the restored version of the film presented here is 119:06.

Audio

French LPCM 2.0 mono
The original mono track is presented in lossless sound. Dialogue for the most part sounds fair, though there are some echoey scenes due to the equipment and recording process. The element that suffers the most is the music which does get distorted on the higher notes and especially for most of the “March of the Dead” sequence. It has its issues but should not be too distracting for viewing considering the age.

There are optional English subtitles available for the film in a white font. Easy to read and well timed, there are no issues here for English speakers.

Extras

The BFI is releasing “J’accuse” as a dual format Blu-ray+DVD release, with the film and extras on a single Blu-ray and the same repeated in standard definition PAL on the DVD. The specs of the extras listed as follows is for the Blu-ray disc:

Audio commentary by Paul Cuff
Historian Paul Cuff gave an excellent 5.5 hour audio commentary on the BFI release of “Napoleon” last year and it shows he still has much more to discuss about Gance’s films in this commentary. Talked about are the differences between the 1919 film and 1938 film, the limitations with the lower budget compared to Gance’s silent films, some of the background information on the making of the film as well as about Gance’s personal life during the time period. Another excellent listen.
in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

Stills and Special Collections Gallery (5:32)
Presented are stills photos from the shooting , the original program guide in French along with English translations, and posters are offered in this slideshow gallery. As the complete text from the programs are translated, have the pause button handy to read them all. There is no audio accompaniment with this gallery.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, with no audio

DVD Copy
The film and extras are repeated on a PAL DVD.

Booklet
A 32 page booklet is provided. First is the essay “A Memorial for Tomorrow” by Paul Cuff who has written two books on the work of Abel Gance. It is a lengthy essay and surprisingly does not have a lot of overlap with his already information packed commentary track. Next is a reprint of the program notes written by Abel Gance for the premiere, which is also viewable in the "Stills and Special Collections Gallery" extra. Some reviews of the film from 1938 are also presented in translated English plus the usual round of film credits, extras information, transfer information, and acknowledgements.

“J’accuse” was released late last year by Olive Films in the United States on Blu-ray which lacked extras of any kind so the BFI release is the clear winner in that department.

Overall

“J’accuse” has a powerful message but the 1938 version unfortunately lacks some of the power that the 1919 silent version had. In a historical standpoint it was a very important and prophetic film to be released at the time. The BFI give the film a great transfer in video and good audio with informative extras making this a recommended release.

The Film: B Video: B+ Audio: B- Extras: B Overall: B

 


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