Directed by Andrej Wajda, the 1983 historical film Danton profiles the fiery revolutionary Georges Danton (Gérard Depardieu), a bombastic, self-proclaimed “man-of-the-people,” who was also one of the leading figures in the early stages of the French Revolution. The film is no traditional bio-pic, however, instead solely depicting Danton’s spectacular fall-from-grace and persecution by fellow revolutionary Maximillian Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak). On this note, the film is an intense, blistering success. It captures not only a wild, mano-a-mano battle between Robespierre and Danton but also the idea of a national psyche at a highly specific point in time. Just don’t go in expecting it to enhance your understanding of the French Revolution.
Beginning in 1794, five years following the assault on the Bastille, the film opens in a France that has descended into a noxious mixture of extremism, nationalism and borderline totalitarianism. Talk of war with the rest of Europe is afoot. Bread shortages are commonplace. The free press is under siege. Fear is everywhere.
At the center of this is the ailing Robespierre, the Jacobian mastermind and champion of representative democracy who later descended into autocratic behavior that would eventually get him killed. An uncompromising, frozen shell of a man, Robespierre is the kind of a guy who is so buttoned-down you wonder if he was wearing a suit and powdered wig when he was born.
Robespierre is pulled away from his sick bed by the sudden reappearance of Danton, who had left Paris before the film’s events after becoming disillusioned with the course of the revolution. The nationalistic Danton is played passionately by Depardieu, an ironic twist considering the actor’s semi-recent decision to relinquish his French citizenship and turn into a total prick.
The visual and verbal juxtaposition between Robespierre and Danton is powerfully effective. On the surface the two men could not be more different. Danton is a strident materialist, an animated lover of women and all things alcoholic. Conversely, Robespierre is a rigid, sanctimonious intellectual, the ultimate 18th century buzzkill.
The film’s dramatic conflict, however, is an ideological one, and on this note the film is rather superficial. Shortly after returning to Paris, Danton begins to clash with Robespierre over the future of the French Revolution, specifically the French government’s use of terror as a means to ferret out political opposition. The film does summarize the main arc of the two men’s relationship with terror being the “order of the day,” but the specifics are kept rather vague. Mainly, it amounts to Danton wishing to moderate the activities of the Committee of Public Safety, a governmental body responsible for the terror that he was partially responsible for establishing.
With such a moderate disposition, the character of Danton becomes a mostly admirable protagonist in the context of the movie. The film’s script skirts over much of the man’s historical complexity, omitting discussion of the hilarious amount of bloodletting that Danton was indirectly involved with. There is, for instance, no real discussion of the September Massacres, the horrendous slaughter of half the prison population in Paris. His behavior before and during the Champ de Mars Massacre also gets only a passing mention. Danton’s suspected financial misdeeds are better incorporated, with the letter by Mirabeau discussing illicit payments of 30,000 livres being brought up and then shot down due to suspicions of Mirabeau’s own treasonous activities.
Both Pszoniak and Depardieu aquaint themselves well with their respective roles. However, Pszoniak’s Robespierre is the better written part, with innate contradictions and more robust character development on display. The character starts off as being a defender of Danton, disagreeing with his peers on their bloodthirsty drive to execute him for trying to reign in the Committee of Public Safety. Yet this resolve slowly erodes when Danton capitalizes on their mutual friend Camille Desmoulins (Patrice Chéreau), an emphatic yet somewhat lily-livered journalist who helps Danton attack the committees with his writing and printing. It then falls apart completely when Danton orchestrates for his supporters to begin attacking Robespierre’s in front of the National Assembly, an action that prompts Robespierre to make one final plea to Danton and Desmoulins before beginning a brutal crackdown.
Within this arc, Wajda is able to locate fruitful thematic material, parsing the difference between a political and criminal trial, personal vendetta and public justice. He also creates fantastic visuals, imagery that communicates the extreme nature of a country poised at the brink of madness and greatness. One pertinent example of this lies within the film’s first few minutes, where Robespierre’s housekeeper bathes her fully nude son who is simultaneously reciting the tenants of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. This powerful moment distills so much about core aspects of the revolution, which seems to have been, at least to a certain extent, obsessed with naked virtue and innocence, willing to strip itself down and be reborn with nothing aside from a frenzied commitment to fraternity and equality.
Complimenting this approach is the film’s haunting score, a disturbing albeit innovative mixture of sporadic drum beats, light horn tones and sounds that evoke human wailing. It struck me as somewhat Kubrickian in nature, suitable for the upsetting material transpiring on-screen.
Wajda’s Danton cannot be seen as a great entry point to the French Revolution. In fact, I can’t imagine watching it before reading an introductory text like Simon Schama’s Citizens or William Doyle’s Oxford History of the French Revolution. That is not to say that one wouldn’t be able to grasp the arc of the story or enjoy its thematic ruminations, simply that the resonance of the period or the particulars of the performances might not come through that strongly.
Still, what do I know? History seems to be cyclical, perhaps even…revolutionary? What I mean by that, of course, is that history turns, and sometimes back to where we started from. At the end of Danton, after successfully sending the Dantonists to their deaths under the blade of la guillotine, there is a scene where Robespierre lays in bed delirious from fever and bemoaning that the need for a dictatorship proves that the French nation can no longer govern itself. This line, delivered directly to the camera, underscores the film’s applicability to the here and now and suggests that it may have value for even those entirely unfamiliar with the French Revolution.
In short, it’s an unsettling moment, one that should send a shiver down the spine of anyone watching it in 2017 America. Despite covering events that transpired over 200 years ago in a country across the ocean, Danton conveys something timeless and universal about a national psyche under assault, not to mention the enormous consequences caused by the flouting of the rule of law, the use of surveillance and the violence of forever war.