2000Director: Peter Watkins
Cast: Eliane Annie Adalto, Pierre Barbieux, Bernard Bombeau
eter Watkins has been accused of many things. His films are too long: the director’s last three features have each clocked in at more than four hours in length. (His latest, La Commune, nearly reaches six.) His politics get in the way: 1969’s The Gladiators now seems more like a farce to modern eyes, while Watkins’ strict anti-authoritarian streak may be the major reason why he has only been able to make three films in nearly twenty years. He’s one of the most ambitious filmmakers working today. Actually I just made that one up. But, like the others, it’s an accusation with some basis in truth.
Watkins’ ambition melds nicely with the subject of his latest film, La Commune which has just recently seen release on DVD. It’s the tale of the Paris Commune, the revolutionary government formed in the wake of the France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. With the country in a state of chaos and France’s government on the run out of Paris, the public began to form National Guards to help protect the city. One of the major projects the citizen militia undertook was the gathering the cities’ cannon—primarily to keep them out of the Prussian’s hands. The old French government, directing things from Versailles, sent what was left of the French army into the city to take the cannon back—operating under the idea that the citizens were seizing it for a possible insurrection. When the army got there, however, the militia didn’t back down—and the army laid down their weapons.
That’s the short—and extremely lacking—narrative of how the Commune came to be. Watkins follows this story, and its aftermath, in La Commune in a variety of ways: he starts the film by introducing two reporters from the fictional Commune TV station. They show us around an abandoned factory that was the stage for the filming of the movie, talking about what we will be seeing in the coming five hours. Watkins enlisted more than 200 people, most of whom had no acting experience, to come to the factory after a year of researching the Commune on their own (at Watkins’ request), inhabit a particular character type, and then began to film the results.
The narrative is pushed along, to a large extent, by the two reporters. The duo interview everyone that they come across: members of the Commune, innocent bystanders, soldiers preparing for battle. Interspersed are the comments of the official government’s TV station, intertitles that clue the viewer in to historical events that have taken place in the narrative, and a variety of other subplots. It’s a confusing mish-mash of information, but (to its credit) the film rarely loses its inexorable momentum. Like revolution, even if you don’t know what exactly is going on, the spirit helps guide things along.
Not knowing the how or the why, though, is a dangerous thing. A problem that Watkins doesn’t avoid. As the Commune progresses, we begin to see the attitudes of the public, the government, and the press all change. In one of the easiest modern parallels the film draws, one of the two TV reporters eventually begins to challenge the idea that all of the news that they report should be pro-Commune. Spurred by an equally-as-inquisitive newspaper reporter, he finally quits his job mid-report halfway through the film—saddened by the unfulfilled promises and chaos that the Commune has wrought.
The relationship of the press to a revolution is but one of numerous themes that Watkins explores over the film’s length. Given nearly six hours to tell this story is a unique gift and Watkins doesn’t squander it. Issues that surely would have been glossed over are given time and thought, even if they are left unresolved by the film’s end. Women’s concerns, for instance, are given a large amount of screen time—as is the issue of immigration: both Algeria and Poland figure prominently as overarching (and future) problems.
The wide swath that Watkins attempts to encompass, however, is exactly in line with his subject, La Commune. Both the revolution and the film are messy, liberating, and chaotic things, full of an irrepressible optimism in the power for change. Like a character says to the camera late in the film, “We should distribute not only this film, but also the life that took place around it.”
La Commune is now available on DVD.