It’s Paris in 1871, and You Are There
At 67, Peter Watkins remains a restless radical, creating films that spectacularly defy narrative conventions, entrenched ideologies and, it must be said, the patience of his viewers.
With a running time of 5 hours 45 minutes, Mr. Watkins’s most recent film, ”La Commune (Paris, 1871),” is far from his longest work, but in many ways it is his most ambitious. (The longest, ”The Journey,” a 1987 survey of the nuclear arms race, was 12 hours.)
Centered on the story of the Paris Commune, the working-class insurgency that briefly ruled the French capital in 1871, Mr. Watkins’s film is at once a provocative account of a neglected episode in social history, a call to arms against the contemporary injustices of capitalism, a critique of the mass media and an experiment in collective filmmaking that recalls the heady days after France’s last mass rebellion in May 1968. ”La Commune” opens today with its New York theatrical premiere at Anthology Film Archives in the East Village.
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.
Mr. Watkins, despite the large body of work he produced later, remains perhaps best known for ”The War Game,” his pioneering 1965 mock documentary, which used the techniques of television reporting to depict the aftermath of nuclear war in a British city. (Though totally fictional, it won the Oscar for best documentary in 1967).
”La Commune (Paris, 1871)” extends those documentary techniques, imagining a 19th-century Paris equipped with television (although black-and-white). Most of the film is reported by a pair of eagerly partisan anchors on Commune TV. The opposing viewpoint, that of the bourgeois government that fled to the safe suburban haven of Versailles, is presented by a mustachioed fop who is the host of the news on Versailles TV.
”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.
If the film has a single conceptual weakness, it is Mr. Watkins’s inability to distinguish between debate and hysterical assertion, the latter being the most frequent path of improvisational actors eager to call attention to themselves. Too much of the movie is played out in bursts of righteous indignation that seem far more like acting exercises than intellectual exchange.
The history seems, at least to this inexpert viewer, solid enough, and Mr. Watkins does not hide the contradictions of the Commune to create a naïvely utopian vision of the movement. The film may argue the necessity of a sweeping egalitarian revolution, but it also suggests its impossibility. If everyone has an equal say, there are no bosses, and if there are no bosses, there is no organization. The Commune collapses partly because of its own nonhierarchical ideals, which give an angry seamstress as much say in strategy as a professional soldier. ”Everyone debates,” one character says, ”no one obeys.”
Where ”The Commune” may have bitten off more that it can comfortably masticate is in its critique of television news. The technique of the two reporters, who stick their microphone in the faces of assorted communards and demand, ”Who are you and what are you doing?,” is obtrusive and alienating, and it seems to refer to an earlier, more naïve period when television journalism was rooted in the cinéma vérité style of the 1960’s — when Mr. Watkins was a producer for the BBC. Only C-Span would now broadcast the long, uninterrupted discourses that Mr. Watkins presents as a staple of Commune TV. Today’s cable news channels would reduce them each to 10-second sound bites surrounded by flashy graphics and framed by running news tickers. Contemporary news channels present a kind of simultaneous reductiveness and overload that squelches reflection and analysis far more thoroughly than the blatant political partisanship of Mr. Watkins’s fictional reporters.
Dave Kehr, NY Times, July 3, 2003