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The Criterion Completist – Danton (1983)

May 6, 2012


written by:  Jean-Claude Carrière, Agnieszka Holland, Andrzej Wajda, Jacek Gasiorowski and Boleslaw Michalek

produced by: Margaret Ménégoz

directed by: Andrzej Wajda

rating: unrated

runtime: 136 min.

U.S. release date: September 28, 1983 (New York Film Festival) and November 13, 1983 (Chicago International Film Festival)

DVD/Blu-ray release date: April 6, 2009

 

History has always provided great material for the cinema, and Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda made an entire career of it with numerous films set during WWII and the early 20th Century.  Poland has always been Wajda’s main subject and inspiration, though in 1983 he would film “Danton”, a historical epic about the key players of the French Revolution that many saw as a biting political allegory to the Solidarity movement that was currently being suppressed by the Soviets in his home country.

“Danton” is set in 1794, five years after the initial French Revolution, and concerns the ideological battle of will between two men, the titular Georges Danton (Gerard Depardieu) and Maxime Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak).  Danton has started to grow weary of the endless bloodshed and denunciations (known commonly as the Terror), and starts to clash with the inflexible revolutionary dogma of Robespierre. The bulk of the film has these two men playing an intricate political cat and mouse game, as they try to sway members of the committee to their side, and gauge the temperature of public opinion.  Long scenes have groups of politicians seated around tables debating and arguing the finer points of the Revolutionary Tribunal.

 

 

While this might seem dry and boring, the scenes are very fiery and passionate, and students of history and fans of historical cinema will find it very engrossing.  Also, Danton, who has been using the newspapers to garner support with his friend Desmoulins (Patrice Chereau, who you might recognize as the French general from “The Last of the Mohicans”), sees the paper destroyed and the press confiscated by the secret police.  The role of propaganda and the manipulation and subjugation of the press is one of the parallels Wajda draws to the modern age, as well as the idea that violence only begets more violence.  Wajda has tried to claim in interviews that he intended to make no parallel between this film and the political situation in Poland, but it is easy to see Danton as the embattled Lech Walesa (founder of the Solidarity movement), and Robespierre as the Soviet-backed leader Wojciech Jaruzelski, who declared martial law in Poland, and used secret police and informants to arrest dissenters.

Regardless of your knowledge of the complexities of the French Revolution, and the true intentions of a Polish filmmaker and his political motivations – the question remains:  does all this work as a film?  Yes and no.

 

 

First, the production design is immaculate, from the Committee halls and chambers to the squalid conditions of an over-crowded Parisian prison.  Also with the incredible costume design work, everything feels completely authentic and realistic without being overtly flashy.  The true gem here, and really the only thing keeping this film moving along, is the unbelievable performance of Gerard Depardieu as Danton.  He portrays the man as someone who still holds dear the original ideals that led to the Revolution, but has grown disenchanted with all the bloodshed and recriminations that have followed in its wake.  He appears weary and disenchanted, and even when fighting for his very life before the courts, his fiery orations are tinged with resignation and regret over what he has created.

Still, the film is very complicated to someone without prior knowledge of the intricacies of the French Revolution, and it is tough to sit through some of the longer scenes of political discourse (especially with a distracting dubbed track that seems about half a second off). In a telling scene towards the end, Robespierre, posing for an artist in Roman togas, finds a large painting of the founders of the Revolution, and tells the artist to delete one of the figures that he has since condemned and sent to the Guillotine.  If history is written by the winners, then that is perhaps why he is more of a well-known figure that Danton, despite the best efforts of this film.

The Criterion edition is offered in a deluxe format, with an entire second disc of interviews, and a nice 42-minute long documentary on the making of the film.  An essay on some of the background of the French Revolution and the connection to Polish history can be read on the Criterion website (and was used to fact check some elements of this article).

 

 

RATING: **1/2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matt Streets saw his first film in 1980, when his parents took him to see Robert Altman’s “Popeye” at the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove, IL.  Since that rocky start, he has become a lifelong movie fan, and has written film reviews on and off since giving “Medicine Man” two stars for his high school newspaper back in 1992.  He is currently attempting the insane feat of watching every single film in the Criterion Collection as The Criterion Completist.

 

 

 

 

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