The first part of Peter Watkins’ six-hour docudrama focuses on the euphoric rise of the Paris Commune, and part two tells the story of its quick decline. The commune was a sort of aftershock of the French Revolution in which the working poor and leftist intellectuals seized control of the Parisian government. Part two of the movie puts a greater emphasis on the relevance of the Commune and its fate, with various connections to contemporary society made through the use of title cards and by interviewing the actors on how they felt about the characters they played.
As a result, Watkins’ intention of shaking up our perspective becomes more apparent than in the film’s first half.
For example, you may think that the world is a much better place for humankind in general than it was in the 19th century, but as Watkins points out in one of his title cards, “In 1870, the wealthiest 20% of the world’s population had 7 times the income of the poorest 20%. In 1997 the difference was 74 to one.” And you may think that the ruthless quashing of the Commune was a bit of European barbarism, alien to our democratic society. But one of the most vitriolic pieces of editorializing from the period, which read, “Let Versailles turn Paris into a mass of ruins, let the streets become rivers of blood, let all the population perish, so long as the government maintains control and demonstrates its power,” came from The New York Times.
The film also addresses how the Commune may seem irrelevant today becuase our sense of natural entitlement has become so expansive. As one of the actresses says, “They fought in the Commune because they were really crushed. Whereas we get screwed by comfort.” It’s true. In 1871, a national guard soldier made enough in one day to buy a dog’s brain — a pretty nutritious meal for someone who’s starving. Nowadays, a person may feel deprived, with some justification, if he or she can’t afford cable TV.
Watkins makes the Commune experience reverberate with emotional relevance. Since he refuses to be glib, the film occasionally gets overburdened with the complexity of the situation, though it’s held together by an abiding sense of outrage. It’s the feel-pissed-off movie of the year.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, Feb. 16. Call 313-833-3237. In French with English subtitles.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].