It’s impossible to imagine a more ploddingly old-fashioned account of the French Revolution than “One Nation, One King,” a film desperate to capture the atmosphere of the time yet unable to operate outside the most formulaic depiction of momentous incidents. Trapped between a history buff’s slavish desire to be true to events and a generic sense of how to make those events “cinematic,” director-writer Pierre Schoeller (“The Minister”) seems uncertain whether he wants to deliver a history lesson or a “Les Mis”-like musical, winding up with a stultifying two-hour epic more appealing to lazy high school teachers instead of cinema audiences seeking either entertainment or intellectual engagement. French box office was dismal following an autumn release, racking up a mere $2.5 million for a feature that reportedly cost around $19 million.
Perhaps Schoeller got too caught up in the excitement of his subject, understandably overwhelmed by the scope of the Revolution and the way common folk rose up while craftier minds took charge. Yet the director is no Jean Renoir or Abel Gance, and his inability to intelligently humanize history while being true to the period makes “One Nation, One King” a well-intentioned failure. He’s gathered a stellar cast, re-created speeches (and speeches, and speeches…), ensured the production design and costume fabrics are as accurate as possible, but along the way forgot that lurching between didacticism and tepidly-drawn fictional characters doesn’t make good cinema.
A marked attachment to high-brow respectability is clear in the opening moments, as Louis XVI (Laurent Lafitte) washes the feet of the poor during a Maundy Thursday ceremony, handsomely shot yet already signaling a laced-up treatment that never veers from a reverence for a scrubbed historical record. Even more telling is a scene shortly after of the storming of the Bastille, when crowds tear down blocks of the notorious prison and sunshine suddenly illuminates streets previously kept in literal and metaphorical darkness for centuries. Might it have happened this way? Perhaps. But onscreen, the images are eye-rollingly earnest and insufferably pat.
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Schoeller’s script weaves these incidents, from 1789 up to the king’s execution in 1793, around a group of earthy fictional characters who find their democratic voices (as well as love) in the tumult of the time. There’s Louis-Joseph Henri (Olivier Gourmet), known as “the Uncle,” a glass blower whose shaping of molten blobs into fine objects serves as a glaringly obvious parallel to the Revolution itself: out of the fiery furnace will come a world of liberty and transparency. Then there’s Basile (Gaspard Ulliel), the broodingly handsome long-haired outsider who discovers himself among the rallying cries while also bedding Françoise (Adèle Haenel), a laundress turned political activist.
There are re-creations of the Women’s March on Versailles, and the formation of the National Assembly, where people like the intellectual Robespierre (Louis Garrel), the impassioned Marat (Denis Lavant), and the cruel Saint-Just (Niels Schneider) address the delegates in lengthy speeches far more impactful when read in books than performed here one after the other in drama-strangling harangues. There is one notable scene, cleverly designed as a theater piece, in which Louis XVI dreams he’s visited by the ghosts of previous kings who berate him for his inability to uphold the sacred office, yet its originality merely shows up how unimaginative the rest of the movie has been.
Clearly Schoeller was overwhelmed by the complexity of the Revolution, and found the only way he could cope with the enormous amount of material was to render every event and scene far too superficially, while bathing it all in golden auras. Julien Hirsch’s camerawork attractively captures the freshly cleaned locations but where’s the excitement, where’s the sense of urgency? The actors go through the paces of scripted emotions but don’t inhabit real people, instead coming off as players in a bland historical pageant. It’s interesting to learn that the words sung by the crowds are sourced from period accounts, yet like the speeches, their power falls beneath the ox-cart of Madame La Guillotine. One element that does benefit from all the exacting research is the costumes, beautifully designed by Anaïs Romand.