Guillotine Spirit


I am seriously way behind in my viewing of the late Andrzej Wajda’s work, to the extent that I’m too embarrassed to even tell you. But last time I was in New York I got to rampage through the Criterion Collection’s famous cupboard, and emerged clutching a DVD of DANTON (as well as a sack of other stuff, of course: I’m Scottish, I like fee stuff). Then all that remained was to watch it, which of course took a very long time indeed to get around to (also embarrassing). But I finally did it, and was not disappointed. Catching up with the film seemed even more belated since I can remember it coming out in 1983. I can’t remember why I didn’t see it then — maybe I only heard about it in a review of the year’s best films, or something.

Amusingly, the film begins where Rex Ingram’s SCARAMOUCHE ends, at a Parisian checkpoint at the time of the Revolution. We’re thrust into an alien world, a society in inexplicable turmoil, an effect created largely by Yvonne Sassinot de Nesle’s costumes and Jean Podromides’ music. The costumes transport a lot of real French locations back in time, as well as contributing to a sense of the grotesque, of puppet-show. The music transports us – where? Into a kind of nightmare.


I love tarpaulins. The sight of Madame Guillotine under her hood makes, on the one hand, a fairly bold and obvious form of Dramatic Foreshadowing when Gerard Depardieu’s Danton looks wistfully at it at the start. But it’s also just a beautiful image, ominous and shrouded and made unfamiliar. See also THE DEVILS for the best tarp ever, and the sheeted heap of furniture in LAST TANGO IN PARIS. We used a tarp for budgetary reasons in my recent short but we got it wrong, hanging it like a drap rather than bulking it out with underneath stuff to make it a mystery. A hanging curtain adds mystery, but a hanging tarp looks like a cost-saving device, which it was.

Ancient wheelchairs and printing presses and briefcases and other action props!


You have to get over the fact that some of the cast is acting in French and some in Polish, dubbed. Wojciech Pszoniak (dunno) plays Robespierre, the other half of the drama, and it’s in the scenes with Depardieu that you most notice lip-flap. The actor dubbing him is great, you believe it’s his voice, but clearly the facial shapes made by Polish do not resemble those made by French and so the mismatch of plosives and fricatives is pretty glaring. But it’s a small irritation in a grand scheme.

Robespierre: thin hair, thin lips, thin blood, feverish. Contrasting with the fleshiness of Depardieu, who is mid-morph between his early sculptural beauty-or-is-it? period (face like a nest of elbows) to his later bulbous eruption. This is actually his most humanoid phase.


The slomo decapitations at the end are decently staged, and the powerful score lifts the sequence into the stratosphere, but the inevitability of the sequence works against it slightly — but Wajda has an ace up his sleeve, cunningly planted earlier, allowing the true ending of the film to be a thrilling, terrifying fade to white on a child’s face, as the credits role. This is savagely brilliant filmmaking, sidestepping the literal-minded and taking us into a startling poetry.

Hmm, maybe a slightly worrying film to watch at this particular historical moment: a reminder that stuff like this happens periodically (in fact, always seems to be happening somewhere).

17 Responses to “Guillotine Spirit”

  1. Don’t forget Patrice Chereau as Camille de Moulins.

  2. Wajda’s DANTON was quite contentiously received at the time of its release in France. Marcel Ophuls didn’t care for it. Jean-Philippe Domecq in Positif was especially furious in his review, he pointed out that the real Danton was supremely corrupt and was running a mafia-like racket while Wajda makes him into a Christ figure. The movie doesn’t mention the war which Danton supported and Robespierre opposed, only to end up ironically on different sides of the equation. And it makes Robespierre into proto-Stalin by having him tell David to remove people from a painting, which the real guy never did.

    About the only movies that accurately portray the French Revolution (the most persistently misrepresented of all historical events next to Post-American Civil War Reconstruction) is Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise and Eric Rohmer’s Lady and the Duke (where at the end Robespierre literally shows up and saves the heroine from a tribunal which he really did do in that situation and many others).

  3. The movie left me with the impression that Robespierre died of his illness, when in fact he became a later victim of the guillotine himself, under particularly unpleasant circumstances. But I quite like it when films take an idiosyncratic view of history – sometimes.

    Also have a soft spot for Anthony Mann’s the Black Book/Reign of Terror — “Don’t call me Max!”

  4. The sad element is none of the political and social stuff of the Revolution comes through. At the height of the Reign of Terror, France abolished slavery for the first time, and Robespierre and others were major anti-racists, with the latter denouncing anti-semitism and Jewish stereotypes. During the Terror, the Louvre was opened to the public for the first time. And many other great things happened alongside things that were bad.

    But you never get that complexity and nuance.

  5. I assumed the film to be pro-democracy, though, so I didn’t need assured that the revolution did good thing. That was a given. I think we see some different skin colours in the assembly, so some of the anti-racists stuff is present without being discussed.

  6. The Lady & The Duke is a fascinating film, both as an examination of how someone can argue themselves into supporting something monstrous, and also the weird, banal details of life during the Terror. I remember a moment where the Tribunal is going to condemn the titular Lady to death over smuggled letters from England, but they can’t bring themselves to open a woman’s private mail, because that would be rude.

  7. What was the monstrous thing someone argued themselves into supporting in The Lady and the Duke? If you mean the Duke supporting the King’s execution, well…the fact is the King was guilty as sin. It was probably monstrous for his own cousin to vote for it I guess…but that served him right in the end.

    The Lady and the Duke is supremely accurate in its historical realization. It shows many famous and less than famous events of the time and if you immerse yourself in Revolutionary history, the movie really opens up very well. Rohmer’s a great artist because despite being conservative in inclination he’s instincts for complexity, nuance and shades comes through and we can have a complex portrait of history. The same applies for Renoir’s La Marseillaise.

    Wajda’s Danton is disappointing because of its partisan nature, and its binaries. It’s brilliantly realized, visually powerful as David mentioned above with the tarpaulin over the guillotine and the final image as well as many other memorable moments but the lack of nuance and complexity, especially for someone familiar with the context, hampers it heavily. Especially these days when the Cold War is over.

  8. Kubrick felt this film was perhaps the finest historical film ever made. I wonder how much of that was that the music is so similar to the Ligeti works utilized in 2001, creating a sense of unease and, appropriately, terror.

    I don’t agree that the figure of Danton is presented here without flaws; he is called to task for his part in promoting prior terrors.

  9. The problem is that Danton and Desmoulins had called for the purge and guillotining of a bunch of revolutionaries a couple of months before their own trials, whereas the film presents them as being entirely repentant and absent from the Terror. They then got involved in stock market fraud and damaged their own credibility. Their attitude was that the terror was okay as long as it affected people we dislike but not us.

    This was also a time of wartime and famine which Wajda’s film doesn’t mention, and they live a lavish lifestyle at that time, when the Commitee of Public Safety humbly live on the same rations as the rest of the people out of…heh…solidarity. Wajda elides the whole original historical context out of Cold War grudges…So Danton as he said represents the West: luxury/fine living/largesse while Robespiere represents the East, i.e. fussy/strict/prudish/authoritarian who force people to eat on rations when that was an effect of war…a war which Robespierre opposed and Danton supported. That dichotomy is unfair to the real Robespierre who was an anti-racist truly ahead of his time and overly generous to Danton, who well he was a flawed and complex character certainly but also has several question marks on his character.

    So one can see Wajda’s film as essentially a neoliberal interpretation of history and the Revolution. And I don’t know the shameless support for Danton for his wealth and large living, and his natural feeling for people against the fussy intellectual Robespierre is quite proto-Trumpian these days.

  10. The shortage of food is established early on, with workers queuing for bread, Robespierre living in a spartan fashion and Danton laying on lavish meals hoping to impress him. That had some pathos to it since you knew it was going to backfire terribly.

    Kubrick was extremely keen on binaries himself (Chaplin vs Eisenstein is a good example) so may have responded favourably to Wajda’s divide.

    The film does give some credit to Robespierre for trying to hold back the terror and spare Danton out of friendship, but there’s no doubt it’s more sympathetic to Depardieu’s man of the people.

    Robespierre’s own death is just terrible! Look it up if you want your day ruined.

  11. Benoit Jacquot’s SADE has a brief moment where we see Robespierre’s death (a little prettied up but not too much)…that movie has its own problems, I was quite impressed by Jacquot’s FAREWELL, MY QUEEN, his film about Versailles in the first three days of the Revolution, with Diane Kruger perfectly cast as Marie Antoinette (probably the most accurate look at history’s most sentimentalized snob).

    Kubrick was generally not much of a guy for real history. Like his attitude towards Napoleon didn’t have much or anything to do with politics. Compare that to Chahine’s Adieu Bonaparte (also starring Patrice Chereau) where you have L’Empereur as a megalomaniac colonialist. I also think that Wajda’s Danton has the tensions between director and screenwriter. Carriere who wrote the screenplay did his research and was trying to make things as fair while Wajda was pushing his thumbs on the scale.

    What I find odd is the depiction of the painter Jacques-Louis David in the film. In the movie, he’s kind of presented neutrally as a stand-in for Wajda, sympathetically almost as an observer working under a Robespierre’s system. The real David was Robespierre’s best friend and a committed partisan. He didn’t just paint the Revolution, he served on the committees that oversaw executions and signed 400 death warrants. So you not only have an uncomplicated look at the politics but an uncomplicated look at the artist in that system.

  12. I remember Derek Jarman saying he made the snarky art critic in Caravaggio type in his bath to recall The Death of Marat because he felt David and Caravaggio would have hated each other — he saw David as a conformist without convictions who changed his position to stay on the inside, and felt Caravaggio would have despised him.

    David’s studio is like a factory in Danton, with the artist as busy propagandist looking for ways to make the boss happy. I guess the Stalinist thing works as a window into how things are changing so fast at the top, with heads rolling faster than anyone can keep track, even if it doesn’t really have any literal connection to history.

  13. Sudarshan: I was referencing the Duke supporting the execution of his own brother, among other things. I feel like there’s a lot of time spent with the Duke arguing that he can moderate the revolutionaries’ bloodthirsty instincts, which… is not what we see in the picture. Of course, this is me half-remembering a film I watched three years ago, partly colored by my more recent reading of John Hardman’s LOUIS XVI biography, which is pretty fascinating (but also very sympathetic to Louis, which is somewhat unusual, from what I can tell).

  14. Never watched Danton, probably because of the horrors I experience whenever I see Gerard Depardieu. Seriously, I haven’t paid to see a Depardieu movie since Mon Oncle d’Amerique…which was when I started experiencing the horrors. The man is like The Picture of Dorian Gray if the portrait was animate and out of the closet. He reminds me of a giant, angry, rambling potato.

    Other than that I have no opinion about him.

  15. I keep getting used to Big Gerard. Currently, when I see him, there’s an initial moment of “Oh dear, look after yourself?” but I can look back on earlier perfs when he was merely massive and not feel a twinge of discomfort. So I feel like if he lives another ten years I’ll be looking back on his current work and going, “Ah, Gerard used to be merely colossal.”

  16. To MR. K:
    Firstly, the King was the Cousin of the Duke of Orleans, not his brother.

    They were rival branches. Rohmer’s film largely sees the Duke sympathetically from Grace Elliot’s perspective (and he stays within her perspective) but we aren’t meant to see him as entirely of a nice guy. The real Duke was an opportunist, who at one point renounced his title and started calling himself Philippe Equality (Philippe Egalite) and he voted for the King’s death, only to eventually get rounded up because others saw him as corrupt, opportunistic, self-motivated and potentially someone who could become a King again. Which let’s face it was an accurate assessment.

    The Duke’s son had become an exile, and he between 1830-1848 would become a Constitutional Monarch after the July Monarchy (the Revolution in Hugo’s Les Miserables by the way). So the idea that Philippe Egalite could become a Fifth Columnist was a fairly solid threat.

    Almost everyone in the Revolution wanted to “moderate the blood-thirsty instincts”. The situation was dire enough that, as Brecht put it, “to help your luckless brothers/was by trampling a dozen others”. Even Robespierre did. That’s why he saved somehwere around 60 people from joining one purge and at the end of Lady and the Duke, briefly gets Grace Elliott out of the Tribunals (which did happen).

    As for DEPARDIEU, I rather like him in Abel Ferrara’s WELCOME TO NEW YORK. It’s his best work in years.

  17. Big Gerard is fearless, you have to give him that. Seemingly without vanity, though obviously with a vast ego. But I kind of like the fact that he’s opinionated (“What’s the point of Juliette Bioche?”) when most are so bland.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: