Friday, 2 December 2016

Danton (1983)

"The revolution like Saturn devours its own children"

Polish director Andrzej Wajda imbues this historical fact-based drama concerning France's reign of terror with the fitting contemporary resonance of what was then occurring in his native Poland and its fellow Eastern Bloc countries under the stranglehold of soviet communism. It's a particularly insightful and satisfying move - after all, the horror of show trials was not exclusive to the oppressive USSR alone and, in Danton, Wajda paints a savage indictment of the same mockery of justice that took the architect of the French Revolution, Georges Danton (played to perfection here by Gerard Depardieu), and his supporters to the guillotine, thanks to his former friend and ally Robespierre's paranoid and tenuous grasp on power.

To further emphasise the point in this Polish/French co-production, Wajda not only cast Polish actor Wojciech Pszoniak as Robespierre, but populated all of his faction on the dictatorial Committee of Public Safety with his fellow countrymen. Pszoniak himself didn't speak a word of French, and all the Polish performers spoke the lines in their mother tongue, being dubbed into French later. The idealistic and popular Danton and his similarly like-minded supporters are all played by French actors, whilst there's a wonderful spot of stunt casting in the role of revolutionary painter Jacques-Louis David, played by the Polish artist Franciszek Starowieyski. It perhaps shouldn't work, but it really does and Pszoniak's performance as the bloodless, stubborn and fearful Robespierre is brilliant - the perfect contrast to Depardieu's loquacious yet equally stubborn Danton, a man of the people but fatally a man of flesh and blood. Watching Depardieu perform what was said to be Danton's audacious, heroic and at times incomprehensible defence until he shouts himself hoarse is spellbinding stuff. 

I've seen some people claim that Danton is confusing and long winded to the point of dull, I couldn't disagree more. Granted, it may help to know of the events of that led up to Robespierre essentially becoming as much of a tyrant as those the revolution deposed to follow the film effectively, but this is far from dull - it's a really absorbing, fascinating dramatisation that benefits from the parallels it draws with what was happening in the Poland of the 1980s, lifting it above the usual historical fare.

"Show them my head. It is worth it"

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