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A Bastille Day Conundrum: Where Are the Good Movies about the French Revolution?

A Bastille Day Conundrum: Where Are the Good Movies about the French Revolution?

Happy Bastille Day! 222 years ago a mob of angry French revolutionaries raided a prison, freed a bunch of people and then went about dismantling their repressive monarchy. Sort of. But really, what’s historical accuracy when you can be out drinking wine and imitating Maurice Chevalier? And as always, on holidays we advocate watching some celebratory movies. The French Revolution is perfect for cinema. There’s intrigue, war, sex, politics, sweeping narratives and an endless supply of dramatic reversals. It’s a watershed moment in world history that practically demands celluloid.

Unfortunately, we’ve got almost nothing to work with. Where are all the great movies about the French Revolution? It’s certainly as worthy of film as its Russian counterpart, and yet there’s no Gallic version of “October,” “Dr. Zhivago” or “Reds.” Neither Hollywood nor the French themselves seem to have been particularly fascinated by the events of 1789, and after more than a century of cinema (which the French invented) we’ve got very little to pop into our DVD players to celebrate Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité. Here’s some thoughts as to why that is, after the jump.

Versailles Is Prettier Than the Rabble

Most of the films that are even French Revolution-adjacent are costume dramas set at the court of Louis XVI. This is not to say that filmmakers are anti-freedom, but cinema often prefers lovelier images. Glamour simply goes a long way, leading to movies like the 1938 Norma Shearer “Marie Antoinette” and Sofia Coppola’s much-maligned portrait of that same fabulously-coiffed queen. The French have contributed to the genre as well, with 1996’s “Ridicule” among other films that enjoy the glitzy Versailles and the complexities of palace intrigue. It often turns out well; not all of these films are as slight as Marie Antoinette herself. Yet they can hardly be called films about the Revolution.

The Whole Thing Was a Complicated Mess

For the 1989 bicentennial the French commissioned an epic film that would tell the complete tale, from the fall of the Bastille to the downfall of Robespierre. The extremely accurate “La revolution française” runs about six hours long, and was a failure both critically and at the box office. Getting bogged down in the details doesn’t work, so very few filmmakers have tried. Instead, they prefer to make films like “The Widow of St. Pierre,” which sits Juliette Binoche on a small Canadian island thousands of miles from the Revolution. Viewed from afar, this beautiful work can use the Reign of Terror as a plot point without getting bogged down in actually addressing it.

A Ghastly Business, that Revolution

The few films we do have that approach the Revolution directly fall into the uniquely British trap of finding the entire series of events distasteful and unfortunate. Since the first French aristocrats fled to London and Edmund Burke denounced the entire affair, many English novelists and intellectuals have been casting the French Revolution as little more than an extended Reign of Terror. “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and “A Tale of Two Cities” have each been adapted cinematically a few times, both with fantastic incarnations in the 1930s. Yet even the best of them practically ignore the actual character of the Revolution, preferring to stick to costume drama and spy intrigue.

A Success, Inspired By Communists

The one film that really confronts the drama of the 1790s without avoiding the details or focusing too much on the bejeweled ancien régime is Andrzej Wajda’s 1983 masterwork, “Danton.” Gérard Depardieu is the title character, a figurehead of the early revolution who turned out to be too moderate for Robespierre and ended up without a head. Wajda jumps right into the drama, uses the complexities to his advantage and ensures that the audience is never lost in the details. It’s the kind of grand yet focused project that the story deserves, and is the lone film that one should really sit down and watch tonight.

Of course, it also isn’t exactly about the Revolution. If you look carefully at the cast list, you’ll notice that Danton and his allies are all played by Frenchmen, while Wajda cast only Poles as Robespierre and his more bloodthirsty associates. “Danton” is a thinly veiled assault on the Polish Communist Party and its recent repression of the Solidarity movement in the early 1980s. It is most certainly a great film about the French Revolution, but it is hardly inspired by it. Yet that urgent contemporary concern is what makes it so great; it not only beats the rest of the bunch in content, but also in passion.

If you can, track down “Danton.” If not, there’s one last option, brought to us by the great master of subtle political metaphor Mel Brooks:

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