Sunday Editor’s Pick: La Commune (Paris, 1871)

by on December 11, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun Dec 19 at 12:00 at Anthology Film Archives [Program & Tix]


Anthology’s invigorating “Anarchism on Film” series continues thru December 23. An ultra-rare opportunity to see Watkins’ 345-minute experimental documentary, which showed up on many recent Best of the Dace lists, on the big screen is one to be savored.


J. Hoberman for The Village Voice:

Dynamic historical reconstruction in the form of an experimental documentary, Watkins’s six-hour feature was made in DV for (and largely buried by) French TV; it’s as much immersion as narrative—complicated yet lucid and contagiously exciting. This visually spare, conceptually rich, and unobtrusively beautiful re-creation of a doomed political utopia was entirely filmed in a derelict factory; it begins with a few of the actors, most of whom are non-professional, introducing themselves and touring the abandoned, debris-strewn set. Thereafter, the spectacle proceeds in the present tense, literally—mainly in direct address as characters explain their situation, with astonishing force and conviction, to each other, as well as to the guerrilla media enthusiasts of Watkins’s imaginary “Commune TV.”


Hoberman continues:

Watkins’s remarkable ensemble piece is a portrait of the public; the actors are always in some sense talking as themselves. Discussion of 1871 easily segues to present-day concerns—there are even meetings to discuss the film. The reporters, meanwhile, interrogate their own points of view, and the action is frequently interrupted by bulletins from the government’s Versailles Television, which has its own suitably foppish newsreader as well as a resident pundit (a royalist historian Watkins recruited through an ad in Le Figaro). The director, who used a similar strategy of interpolated TV reporting in his first feature, Culloden (1964), knows his newsroom clichés. Indeed, the rise of a media monolith has long been one of his major issues.


Like CullodenLa Commune is in good measure an action film that builds inexorably to a powerful climax. This syncretic work of left-wing modernism—suggesting not only Brecht and Vertov but Soviet mass spectacle and didactic Godard—is at once immediate and self-reflexive. Watkins restages history in its own ruins, uses the media as a frame, and even so, manages to imbue his narrative with amazing presence. No less than the event it chronicles, La Commune is a triumph of spontaneous action.



Eric Henderson for Slant:

Peter Watkins’s La Commune (Paris, 1871) is a marginalized, disjointed, whirling dervish of utopian ideas and devil-may-care indulgence, as was its subject matter.


In an apparent attempt to beat his age-old nemesis—the hegemony and brain-numbing monotony of modern mass media—by deconstructing its language, Watkins puts TV news and essay filmmaking, Brecht and McLuhan, costume drama, and readers’ theater all into the time machine (e.g. the warehouse set for the film, where Watkins and his crew built a spare, almostDogville representation of 19th Century Paris) and applies it to a fairly straightforward dialectic. While the official word from Versailles’s oppressive, pandering, state-run TV news consistently reminds France’s haves that the have-nots in Paris are perpetually mere days away from being run down by Prussians, inter-community squabbles or sheer, disorganized incompetence, the first-person “Commune TV” (think PBS, only giving itself over to nothing but breaking news) presents…well, pretty much the same story, only with a lot more nuance and political fire and brimstone. It’s a brilliantly simple conceit that creates an instantaneous beehive of colliding concepts. As McLuhan himself might quip, it strikes while the media’s hot.


Michael Atkinson for Good:

Few serious movie consumers, if asked to tally up a list of the world’s greatest living filmmakers from their forebrain, would likely include the incorruptible, pioneering Peter Watkins. They’d name Jean-Luc Godard, Martin Scorsese, Wong Kar-Wai, David Lynch, Abbas Kiarostami-and yet no one working in modern cinema, a culture that supposedly prizThe insurrectionary cant cuts like a chainsaw, and so the Gallic executives never broadcast the film, which slowly thereafter circled the globe in festivals and occasional art-house bookings. It’s not a viewing experience you can shake off easily, and may be the most passionate and eloquent progressive-values film ever originality (at least outside Hollywood), may be as brave, as politically vital, and as utterly intolerant of the medium’s systemic compromises as Watkins. A historical mock documentary, this is the film event that turned Watkins into a cultural presence.



Jared Rapfogel with a great piece on Watkins’ career for Cineaste:

Many filmmakers, even admirable ones, have proven vulnerable to pressures less intense and relentless than these. One of Watkins’s greatest achievements is simply the perseverance he has demonstrated—from his first short films to La Commune, Watkins has, seemingly without hesitation, sacrificed financial and career security in order to continue making films exactly as he wants to make them.


The culmination of Watkins’s experiments are his most recent fictional films, The Freethinker and La Commune (Paris, 1871), both period films which emphasize their artificiality and foreground their own making. The Freethinker is an intricate and wide-ranging mixture of dramatic reconstructions, archival photographs, narration, on-screen texts, and discussions with the cast and crew. La Commune, on the other hand, is a kind of companion piece toCulloden, focusing on the short-lived socialist uprising in Paris in 1871. La Commune was filmed in a large abandoned factory building, with a cast of more than 220, most of who were without prior acting experience. Both represent Watkins’s collaborative approach to filmmaking at its most ambitious, with the actors responsible not only for interpreting their roles, but for researching their characters’ lives and backgrounds, for contributing a piece of the historical mosaic. Indeed, both these films are achievements not only in drama but also in historical research. Dry as that may sound, the results are anything but—the wealth of detail adds dimensions that most period films hardly even suggest, the multitude of information heightening the drama rather than bogging it down. Compelling as they are, these films prove that high production values and the illusion of reality can be almost totally superfluous.


Though Watkins’s collaborative approach was hardly new, in The Freethinker and La Commune he makes this process an integral part of the finished product, interspersing the reconstructions of Strindberg’s life and of the uprising not only with the usual screen texts, but also with footage of the actors speaking about their relationship to their roles and discussing the project with each other, as well as debating the state of contemporary politics (an extension of one of the many elements of The Journey, large blocks of which involve group debates about nuclear war and the peace process). This transparency broadens the films’ reach—each one is both the result of a process and a document of it.


Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

A remarkable master technician and social visionary whose early work is filled to the brim with focused rage, Watkins has created some of the most troubling, thought-provoking, even shattering films I know. This has helped make him persona non grata in mainstream TV and cinema and also in art houses, among academics, at festivals, and on cable TV.  Like many other Watkins films La Commune is basically done as TV reportage. That sounds like an odd way to treat events in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it actually works as a way of commenting on both history and the present, social memory and the media. Watkins emphasizes rather than soft-pedals the anachronisms, encourages his actors to look at the camera, and incorporates two competing TV channels that report on what’s happening from the communard and Versailla is viewpoints just as contemporary talk shows and news programs do.


In other words, La Commune isn’t so much a realistic re-creation of anything as it is a dialogue between past and present, with each time frame used to shape and define the other. The film begins with a long title explaining part of the historical context, followed by a moving camera’s endless inventory not of the district where all the action takes place, but of the set representing it, street by street and shop by shop. The shooting of the action has just been completed, and a couple of actors in costume introduce themselves as two of the news reporters; then we get glimpses of members of the film crew in their normal street clothes, then a narrator telling us about both the aftermath of the film shoot and of the massacres that ended the Commune. (The mobile camera inside a studio setting vividly recalls the style of live TV dramas of the 50s such as Studio One.)



Dave Kehr for the New York Times:

In these risk-averse times, it is a pleasure to see a film that fails by attempting too much. Frustrating and demanding as it may be, ”La Commune (Paris, 1871)” is essential viewing for anyone interested in taking an exploratory step outside the Hollywood norms.


”La Commune” was shot in 1999 entirely in an abandoned factory in Montreuil, a Paris suburb, dressed to suggest the streets of the working-class 11th Arrondissement and populated by some 220 amateur and professional actors. Mr. Watkins involved his cast in doing their own research on the characters, actual or composite, they would be playing. The performers then had to divide into groups representing the conflicting factions in the drama: members of the National Guard, who deserted the government to support the Commune; the neighborhood politicians, who rose to prominence as the Commune became more centralized and authoritarian; the bourgeoisie (curiously, most represented by angry, umbrella-wielding women), who opposed the Commune; and the oppressed populace of seamstresses, laundresses and artisans, the Commune’s most passionate participants.


Bringing these figures into largely improvised conflict, Mr. Watkins creates long, minimally edited sequences in which great issues of social justice and radical reform are debated in luxuriant detail. He also lets his performers step out of character and comment on their own roles, their comfort level in playing the personalities they have adopted and how they see the issues of ”La Commune” reflected in contemporary French politics.


Paul Arthur in Film Comment (July/Aug 2003):

As is true of many great nonfiction works, piecing together the backstory of La Commune (Paris, 1871) is almost as compelling as the action onscreen. In this case, however, Watkins both encourages and rewards our fascination by zestfully exposing his tools and by allowing actors dramatic space to interrogate the film’s production process and political tropes. Put simply, La Commune adopts collaborative artistic strategies roughly commensurate with the precepts of direct democracy and communal self-legitimation that stirred workers and intellectuals at the vanguard of a doomed socialist experiment.


Despite scruffily authentic costumes, stirring speeches, and fully earned moments of high drama, the six-hour La Commune is hardly Les Miz. Rather, like a merging of Brechtian “teaching play” with a Rossellini behind-the-scenes period piece, Watkins’s epic adroitly springboards from 19th-century concerns about separation of church and state and the organization of female labor to contemporary issues of sexism in the workplace, immigration policy, and economic globalization. The primary burden of connecting the two eras is borne by an extensive network of intertitles, providing contextual information on people and debates as well as giving recent statistics on the widening gap between rich and poor, Hollywood’s domination of the European movie market, and the fate of France’s “sans papiers” (Algerian workers). Watkins seems to suggest that rereading 1871 through a late-capitalist lens is as inevitable-given the paucity of participant accounts-as it is true to the spirit of the time. Hence the director again mobilizes the device of a TV news crew, two pleasant but increasingly fractious locals in patent sympathy with the rebels, to wander around interviewing Communards individually and in small groups, asking “What are your needs?” or “What do you do here?” Typically shot in continuous ten-minute handheld takes (sort of messy, political cousins to Russian Ark), these segments are set against “official” newscasts by a national government angrily ensconced at Versailles.


Unlike Watkins’s emphasis on mass-media distortions-needless to say, an extremely urgent issue-the attention to everyday particulars of governance explores territory rarely mapped by any film genre. Once the Communards seize power, they are faced with running a bustling city, and the sheer scope of responsibilities is daunting: birth certificates, baptisms, widows’ pensions, a meeting space for the newly formed women’s union. Leaving aside constant tensions between civilian and military authorities over how to defend their turf, problems of food distribution alone could have undermined the Commune’s fragile foundations. Rooting passionately for these earnest, incredibly eloquent citizens, we can nonetheless sense the grinding logic of inevitable collapse. Under ideal circumstances, the long shared struggle witnessed onscreen would encourage spectators, individually or collectively, to envision what are now cast as Impossible solutions to a catastrophic political order.



Doug Cummings for Film Journey:

Without a doubt one of the best and most important films of the decade. Filled with wall-to-wall political debate, pleas for social equality and critiques of power, the film is a furious, provocative, and rousing experimental documentary that reenacts the Commune’s historical moment.


La Commune is shot with striking, black-and-white digital video, often in ten-minute takes. The wide-angled footage would seem slower if the action wasn’t occurring simultaneously in the foreground, midground, and background–usually in the form of public masses in “streets” or long, crowded rooms–and if the handheld camera didn’t move through the crowds as often as it does, pushing from one conversation to the next. Dramatic momentum is comprised of a multitude of small conflicts, all coexisting and colliding with one another through protests, arguments, and ongoing discussions. For all of Watkins’ carefully conceived interruptions and proverbial mirrors highlighting his creative process, the film never substitutes irony for genuine feeling or seriousness of purpose, which may be its singular aesthetic triumph. Watkins obviously cares about the subject deeply and his many passionate actors clearly do as well; no amount of self-imposed critical distance diminishes the film’s dramatic force or real world relevancy–it only intensifies it.


Tomorrow marks the one year anniversary of the worst riots in France in 40 years, and news reports are already stating that police are descending into poor neighborhoods in the hopes of warding off potential repeat events, even though little has changed in the social fabric within the past year. With those concerns and a crucial US election coming up, La Commune may not only be one of the towering achievements of cinema of the last few years, but also an electrifying examination of issues and conflicts that couldn’t be more relevant today.


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