White-knuckle thriller, history lesson, polemical mass-media critique, genre-bending docudrama: British provocateur Peter Watkins’ “La Commune (Paris 1871),” the 12th film in a thematically consistent career that’s endured nearly four decades of controversy, stages the violent Parisian anarchist uprising of 1871 as a televised media event on interlocking and labyrinthine sets on a makeshift warehouse soundstage. Taped in stark black-and-white and clocking in 15 minutes shy of six hours, invigorating pic is big, passionate and brimming with compelling human details and broad sociopolitical idealism. Extreme length aside, “La Commune” is an involving, important work that reps a high-profile event for fests and distribs, as well as a prestige buy for cablers the world over.
During the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, radical Republicans and socialists in Paris revolted against the Versailles-based elected National Assembly, which they viewed as composed of unrepentant monarchists who caved in to the demands of Prussian prime minister Otto von Bismarck.
In mid-March of 1871, the Parisians — themselves splintered into numerous political camps — formed a proletarian dictatorship that segued into the Communards via an elected municipal council dubbed the Central Committee of the National Guard. This worker-friendly provisional government passed numerous new laws favoring individual rights, but before they could be enacted, troops were sent from Versailles to crush the uprising. The resulting slaughter of anarchists and innocent citizens alike, which lasted from March 21-28, claimed about 25,000 lives and has become known as Bloody Week.
Pic immediately breaks the fourth wall with establishing p.o.v. shot of nearly empty soundstage, on which the white-haired director can be glimpsed peering intently into a video monitor with his crew. Hung loosely around the intrepid man-on-the-street interviews of a tense pair of Commune TV correspondents, narrative follows the intricate political machinations of the populace and the military, who speak directly to the camera throughout.
A procession of plain-talking citizens states beefs and allegiances, punctuated by intertitles providing details on developments. Workers bicker with their shopkeeper boss, while a talking head on state TV warns of danger from Algerian immigrants.
Soon a somber reporter from National TV Versailles is breaking into unseen local programming to broadcast “official” versions of events, outright lies that inflame residents further and set the stage for violent revolt. National Assembly leader Adolphe Thiers (nicknamed “little runt” by Parisians) takes to the airwaves to deliver stiff, inflammatory rhetoric. As the election results are announced, citizens come together to lustily bellow choruses of “La Marseillaise” and celebrate their unity.
Euphoria gives way to apprehension as internecine bickering among the newly elected officials — and their decisions to hold closed-door meetings — erodes the public’s confidence. The separation of church and state is debated, as are the pros and cons of women in the military. As part one ends, civil war seems unavoidable.
As part two gets under way, efforts to calm the populace are being neutralized by the new red tape of myriad rules and regulations conceived to provide order. Representatives of a newly formed woman’s group are almost comically frustrated in their efforts to get meeting space in an official building An extended debate on women’s rights segues to a male-only pub bull session. Over time, thesps begin breaking character to discuss their reactions to the film thus far, and, if this is pic’s most challenging passage, it’s also a riveting way for Watkins to employ his careerlong strategy of tying the past to the present.
In pic’s final two hours, the journalists quarrel with each other over the veracity of their reports and a palpable sense of foreboding descends over all. In agonizing detail, Watkins charts the fractious events leading up to Bloody Week and the massacre itself, in vivid yet determinedly non-sensationalistic fashion.
Helmer is no stranger to the heady mix of media and reality: His 1964 debut “Culloden” employs much the same kind of structure in its re-creation of the last battle fought on British soil, and he won 1965’s docu Oscar for controversial nuclear holocaust-themed “The War Game.” The 200-plus non-professionals in the cast perform with fierce veracity, and in true communal spirit are listed alphabetically under some three dozen class groupings (“The 66th Battalion,” “The Children,” “The Talbot Family”).
Tech credits are tops, with nimble hand-held Betacams of Odd Geir Saither and crew seemingly everywhere at once. No effort is made to mask bare walls of the warehouse, giving events a surreal otherworldliness that somehow heightens the tension. Pic is officially divided into two parts of 164 and 181 minutes, but was shown at Toronto fest on five videocassettes, with a single 15-minute break at the 3:36 mark. In any configuration, “La Commune” is powerful, heady stuff.