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).