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Film review: Danton outgrosses Robespierre

Preface: As I've said, oldie writing will be dusted off and plunked blogside (at least at first; new stuff should gradually overtake i...

Monday, February 16, 2009

Film review: Danton outgrosses Robespierre

As I've said, oldie writing will be dusted off and plunked blogside (at least at first; new stuff should gradually overtake it). The following is a longer review of ***A CLASSIC!!*** -- Polish director Andrzej Wajda's 1983 film Danton, a historical drama of the French Revolution, from the Cold War era.

Wow! And actually available on DVD soon! --


Once upon a time figured this review was a choice illustration of my feisty independence and penetrating insights, but after attaching it to job applications which netted zero writing gigs, I suspect it only reveals my sneering arrogance and vanity. But hey, that's me...

PS: Despite what its lead sentence may suggest, profanity is something I usually avoid, saving it for special occasions where it is really needed. Hollywood films, however, often provide exactly such an occasion.

From the University of Alberta Summer Times, May 31, 1984:

Princess Theatre
Coming June 3, 4

Review by Jens Andersen

Jeez! The shit and corruption oozing out of Hollywood these days just gets worse and worse. The latest news is that despite the recession Indiana Jones is fleecing record numbers of morons. And Gremlins, a ridiculous horror flick, to judge from the hype, promises to perform similar miracles in a week or two.

As the old Sage of Baltimore said, nobody ever underestimated the taste of the American people.

Fortunately there are still a few film-makers to whom the word 'accomplishment' means something besides unprecedented fraud at the box office. One such artist is Andrzej Wajda, whose brilliant film Danton hit the city last month, and returns to the Princess this weekend. This is a film to see, if you are one of the civilized minority who thrills to the clash of ideas and personalities, not the witless combat of an all-American yahoo with a horde of evildoers (or sinister little furry creatures terrorizing third-rate actors).

Not since McCabe and Mrs. Miller have I seen such a magnificent film.

Its subject is the brief episode during the French Revolution when Jacobin leader Robespierre railroads fellow revolutionary Danton on trumped-up charges, and guillotines him and his followers. It begins with Danton returning to Paris after an absence, determined to unseat the fanatical Robespierre and his henchmen on the Committee of Public Safety. From there the film traces, in meticulous detail, the manoeuvering of both men and their factions, as well as the reactions of the public and the indecisive National Convention.

The film is so expertly done that viewing its scenes is like witnessing all the crucial moments this most nightmarish phase of the Revolution. Here are the breadlines full of hungry, scared and confused people, wondering who is to blame for the sad mess the country is in. Here are the government checkpoints where peasant guards in liberty caps search travellers; here the crowds cheering Danton on his return; here Danton and his followers furtively plotting; here the members of both cliques indulging in panicky speculation about each other's plans; now hired thugs trashing the shop of Danton's printer Camille; now a tense meeting between Danton and Robespierre attempting a reconciliation; that failing, Robespierre pushing the nervous Committee of Public Safety into manufacturing charges and selecting 'reliable' jurors; now the steely Robespierre facing an angry and horrified Convention and swaying them to approve the charges; now grim scenes inside the filthy prison where Danton and company are held; now the chaotic kangaroo court where Danton eloquently plays to the gallery, hoping to topple the government and save the conspirators; thence to the guillotine; shown in unflinching detail, right to the blood sopping onto the straw underneath the platform; finally Camille's widow tying a scarlet thread around her neck, and Robespierre in bed, sweating with horror at the outcome, while a young boy dutifully recites to him the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

The simple plot is only the skeleton on which Wajda fleshes out the revolutionary personalities and their ideas. What Wajda himself thinks is a bit of a mystery, since he doesn't flog his messages in the obtuse and obscene Hollywood manner, and in interviews he is reportedly rather coy. There are pearls, however, if one peers hard enough, and their significance makes them worth the search.

Curiously, the critics I read did not dig deep enough and reached seriously wrong conclusions about the film, the main one being the judgement that Danton is the hero of the film and Robespierre the heavy.

When the film ran in Toronto this January, for instance, a Sun reviewer concluded that Danton is an allegory on the current crisis in Poland (Wajda is a Pole) and that Danton himself is a Lech Walesa figure. In the March-May Princess calendar an anonymous critic notes that this sort of interpretation is widespread. Even the Polish government seems to concur, since it has delayed premiering the the film in Poland indefinitely. The Princess reviewer cautiously sees the film as a general statement about "the gaps that can occur between the public and the authorities who govern that public, adding that Robespierre is "unsympathetic" and Danton is "very human."

Finally, Edmonton Sun reviewer Tom Elsworthy echoes his Toronto counterpart, saying, "Wajda obviously wants us to think about his troubled homeland." Translating Elsworthy's weird metaphors into English is a ticklish job, but he too seems to see Robespierre as the villain ("Wajda is fuelled by his desire to rub salt in the wounds of the world's Robespierres") and Danton as a hero "championing the cause of those who have their breadline privileges suspended."

Breadline privileges????

Equally nonsensical is his summation of the film: "Some viewers will stagger away thinking the tyranny of martyrdom is terror. Others will counter that the tyranny of terror is martyrdom. They're both right."

Eh??... but I leave the tortuous rhetoric to semantic pathologists.

In reality, it can be easily demonstrated that these critics are alike wrong, that Danton is plainly the villain, more akin to the Ayatollah than Lech Walesa.

True, Danton opposes a brutal regime, as Walesa does, but any similarity ends there. Walesa is genuinely of the workers. Danton, though history buffs will recall he began proletarian, is a mouthpiece of the bourgeoisie well before the film starts. Wajda stresses this in numerous, often subtle ways. Both pro and anti-Danton people often mention that he has powerful backing from bankers and businessmen. And during the trial the people cheering him in the gallery are conspicuously well-to-do.

Again, Walesa lives humbly, whereas Danton has made a bundle from the revolution. His orgiastic feasting is contrasted with Robespierre's poverty (due to shortages he can get no sugar). Danton rides in a fine carriage. When he is arrested, one of the prole crew, torch in hand, stops to gape and paw at a showy painting in Danton's sumptuous digs. It is Robespierre who lives in in frugal quarters like Walesa.

At one point a Danton follower gently mentions to him that there are rumors of his profiteering, whereupon Danton sneers that if he likes noble poverty so much, he can join Robespierre. Then later at his trial Danton has the gall to say, "A man like me is beyond price."

Finally, Walesa is a shrewd and prudent man, as befits someone in his precarious position. Danton, also in a tense situation, is breezy and careless, a drunken gladhander with the happy-go-lucky confidence that his spellbinding oratory can rouse the people and get him out of any bind. As it happens, his magnificent voice begins to crack under the strain of the trial and he fails to rouse the crowd sufficiently.

If Danton is a Walesa, then Walesa is a capitalist tool in receipt of CIA gold, just like the Polish authorities claim he is.

Furthermore, any comparison between Danton and Robespierre is in Robespierre's favor. Even granting Robespierre's manifold faults, he is still ten times the man that Danton is. It is Robespierre, after all, not Danton, who makes two personal attempts at conciliation between the factions. To do so he must restrain his hot-headed followers and remind them that he and Danton were once friends in the same revolutionary cell. The followers jeer that a meeting with Danton is futile and suggest to Robespierre that he is a coward, but he braves their taunts and goes.

Danton, by contrast only restrains his followers for tactical reasons. He wants the showdown at any cost, but he wants to do it his way, with a grand rhetorical appeal to the people. And like a coward he uses his guileless friend Camille to attack Robespierre. When Danton meets Robespierre he treats him obnoxiously, first offering the sickly leader a glut of rich food, then sweeping the entire feast to the floor when Robespierre politely declines. Next he proceeds to get drunk and insult Robespierre in every conceivable way ("They say you've never even had a woman!"), pours him a glass of wine full to the very brim (Robespierre handles this one quite well, but I'm not divulging the details), and finally Danton falls asleep, drunk and snoring, in Robespierre's arms.

But these are minor personal vices, you say? More than offset by Danton's laudable opposition to the tyrannical Robespierre, you say?

You poor deluded sap! Addled by action-flicks! Brainwashed by too many pre-fab formula movies!

Don't you remember the brief, seemingly innocuous scene where a minor Dantonist greets his hero and reminds him of his faithful support when Danton wanted to execute the king? Do you think this scene got into the film by accident? And what about the less-subtle scene where the peasant prisoner spits at the convicted Danton and says he is glad that at least one of the authors of the Terror got a taste of the same medicine.

No, like the critics you only remember Danton's stirring defense speech -- all those noble words against cruelty and tyranny and injustice. Like the critics you sat in rapt admiration and wished that this pure, brave soul could be Prime Minister of Canada or something.

You remember Danton saying how he just wanted to retire from politics and live a peaceful private life (such a nice man!) but it never occurred to you that he desires this because he now has the loot to retire with. You forgot that this man was once (pardon the sick pun) a blood brother to Robespierre.

Robespierre has more humanity than this, and he is not for sale like Danton. Here Wajda echoes Napoleon, who said:

"Robespierre was a fanatic, a monster, but he was incorruptible, and incapable of robbing, or of causing the deaths of others, either from personal enmity, or a desire for enrichment. He was an enthusiast, but one who really believed he was acting right, and he died not worth a sou."

Compare Danton, who never once shows real revulsion at the Reign of Terror. When he says there has been "too much blood" it is stated with no real conviction. One is tempted to ask this butcher how many gallons of blood is "too much."

At least Robespierre sweats and suffers over the madness around him, although he never escapes from the double prison of his crazy followers and his own crazy beliefs.

(In one scene he tells Danton, "I don't believe in fate." Whew!)

So now we come to an interesting question: why do critics, to varying degrees, see a hero in Danton? This sensual, hypocritical, inconsiderate, blundering, profiteering, glib, vain... scumbag. This braggart who muttered that the Revolution wouldn't last three months without himself. Why is this jerk admired?

The answer lies in the critics' and the audience's Western biases, more precisely their democratic biases. Wajda has said that Danton is the West (a comment which baffled the Princess reviewer). Danton is obviously a demagogue. Hence he represents the tendency of the democratic West to succumb to demagogues. The Dantons. The Hitlers (yes, Virginia, he was democratically elected). The Trudeaus, Reagans and Margaret Thatchers.

The West is so inured to demagogues -- nay, seduced by them -- that they scarcely even notice the demagoguery. When the moron-mesmerizers unroll their silver tongues, audiences groove to the beautiful sounds and forget to examine the speakers' character and deeds. Just as the critics, dazzled by Danton's oratory, were blinded to the scoundrel behind the ringing phrases.

By misjudging Monsieur Danton so completely, these critics have underscored, in the most dramatic way, Wajda's veiled warning to beware our Dantons, lest we end up like King Louis XVI, the hapless Camille or Danton's other victims.

PS: Lest you think that I've revealed everything about Danton in this review, let me just say that there is a wealth of other insights in the movie which I haven't even mentioned. Indeed, the average scene in this film carries a greater load of significance than many entire films, than many entire GOOD films. When I go back this weekend I suspect I will be picking up on many things I missed the first two times, although perhaps not as many as some other critics.

* * * * * *

That's the review. Nearing the end of the transcription I googled a couple of reviews, one from the Nation (1983) by a French Revolution specialist, Daniel Singer. Here is a segment:

Wajda's film is based on a play first performed in 1931, The Danton Affair, by Stanislawa Przybyszewska. At the time she wrote the play, Przybyszewska was a Communist sympathizer. According to the rumor in Paris, The Danton Affair was pro-Robespierre. Wajda, however, altered it to make Danton the hero. (italic-boldface mine)
But Wajda's film does not proclaim Vive Danton; it is too busy cursing all revolutions. Also, to my mind at least, the French actor Gerard Depardieu, who plays Danton, is utterly bewildering. True, Danton too was mighty and had a stentorian voice. Yet there is a difference between an attorney having the shape of a football player and a football player playing the role of an attorney, especially if he clowns his way through the part. At the end, when he tells the executioner, "Show my head to the people, it is worth looking at," one is left wondering how this rather grotesque person became a major figure in the revolutionary drama.
But the weakness of the film does not lie in the casting. The central flaw is Wajda's omission of the historical backdrop...

...and Singer's weakness is being more ideologue than artist. Art is NOT just Ideology Illustrated, dammit. And the central issue is NOT history --although this might be a lesser flaw -- or rather , if history IS crucial to the film, the historical nub would be whether the portrayal of the VILE Danton is historically accurate, an assessment Singer never really tackles (hmm --as accurate as Shakespeare's Henry V, maybe?)

In any case, I disagree with Singer's conclusion that the film is anti-revolutionary -- again, an ideologue's viewpoint. ("For us or against us, you running-dog lackey!")

At worst, the film argues (most subtly) that revolutions can't be better than the people running them, and/or some revolutionaries have human failings. But hey, at least Singer has a vague inkling that Danton is not a clearcut hero; compare this to the view from an e-site called Allmovies:

The film (Danton) features what is often regarded as Gerard Depardieu's finest performance, as the compassionate (!!!!!!!!!!!) rebel leader who tragically fails to mitigate the Reign of Terror of his friend-turned-enemy Robespierre.

It's sub-retarded criticism of this sort that inspires otherwise sane and sober critics to abandon words and grab the cudgel.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Aphorism and bumpersticker

Yes, modern civilization has pummelled this blogger into being a "mass man." After all, I live a life of quiet desperation. Well, make that loud desperation. And activist still.

Make the world a better place--kill a theorist!