Criterion // 1983 // 136 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // March 31st, 2009
"It will all collapse without me." -- Georges Danton
The theatrical trailer for Danton promises a rousing story of the French Revolution, with mob scenes, Madame Guillotine, and lots of shouting. The actual movie is quieter, with appeals to the intellect rather than lots of action. However, it's still worth a look.
Georges Danton was one of the founding members of the French Revolution. "I am the Man of October 10. All of Paris is behind me," Danton proclaims at one point. However, his newspaper ran afoul of Maximilian Robespierre, the man who personifies the phrase, "Heads will roll."
Director Andrzej Wajda (Kanal) made this movie as a more recent revolution was starting to come apart: Poland's Solidarity movement was challenging the Communist Revolution. Thus, you might suspect there's a statement about then-current events in there somewhere.
There's a lot to think about here, so Danton: Criterion Collection is a natural project for the people who do movies in depth.
In Paris in the spring of 1794, Georges Danton (Gérard Depardieu, Asterix and Obelix Meet Cleopatra) is mobbed by admirers as he steps out of his carriage. Danton is not admired by Maximilian Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak, Chaos), who worries about the stuff that Danton's printing in his paper. Stuff like: "Despotism is killing innocent people so that the guilty don't escape. The Committee thought the Republic needed a period of despotism."
At first, Robespierre is reluctant to act against Danton, even as his tribunal calls for a beheading. "You've forgotten everything done by the man you're now so eager to kill," Robespierre tells them. "We'd have to rule by terror," he warns in his argument against action.
Danton believes that the Revolution has already descended into brutality. "I must end the terror because I'm partly to blame for it," he tells his allies.
Danton and three allies, along with a few criminals Robespierre rounded up for show, are arrested and put on trial. Danton could soon have a date with Madame Guillotine.
There are some dramatic moments in Danton. The wife of Camille Desmoulins, one of Danton's allies, swoons as she hears her husband's sentence; it's hard to avoid emotion and tension in moments like that. However, the movie at times feels more like a debate, dry and intellectual, as Danton puts forth his views. Still, it's a well-crafted debate that will hold your attention, even with the inconvenience of reading subtitles.
It helps that Gérard Depardieu delivers a strong performance as the confident, fiery Georges Danton. "A political trial is a duel," Danton says, and Depardieu makes the most of that philosophy, whether he's pressing Robespierre to touch the head he wants to lop off or turning a show trial on its ear. Wojciech Pszoniak's Maximilian Robespierre is weak, having been ill as the story begins, and appears the loser at the end, even though his opponent lost his head. It also helps that Danton makes the most of detail, even down to showing the nervousness of the soldier reading the arrest warrant to Danton.
The parallels to the Communist Revolution are plentiful and fairly obvious. The people waiting in line for bread believe the rumors that it's a bogus shortage, but they're not sure whether to blame the government or its foes. A mother drills the revolution's policy statements into her young son's head. I'd probably think about Danton's resemblance to the slain Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky long before I saw any connection to Lech Walesa, though.
For the most part, the people involved with the movie, as they talk about it in three extra features, seem to see a more general link. "The Polish 'Revolution'" notes that Lenin often mentioned Robespierre and the French Revolution, but it also notes that the Stanislawa Przybyszewska play on which the movie is based was written in the 1930s, even before Trotsky's death. "Wajda's 'Danton'" goes into the filming in more detail; the guillotine scene and a burial scene are among those featured. Those two are in French, but scriptwriter Jean Claude Carrière is interviewed in English. Also included is an essay by Leonard Quart which provides more information on the director as well as examining the movie's central conflict.
The movie's images hold up well, although the extras are faded and scratched. The music, which has a moody quality that might make you expect a horror film for a second, has no problems. Subtitles weren't difficult to read.
While much of Danton is dry, Madame Guillotine is wet at the end. Blood drips as the heads roll, and Danton's bloody head is shown to the crowd.
Obviously, this is not a movie for a casual evening in front of the tube. Be ready to ponder.
If there's a message to Danton for twenty-first century viewers, it's that, while governments rarely descend into the terrors of the French Revolution or the Soviet Union, there's always a gap between ideals and reality.
The supplements aren't totally exhaustive, but that seems to be because Danton is a lesser-known picture. That's too bad. If you want to think about politics and government, Danton is worth watching and worth knowing.
Not guilty; Danton gets to escape Madame Guillotine.
Review content copyright © 2009 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 136 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Not Rated