September 6

The first Thursday of the fest tends to be a low key affair, with most journalists simply showing up, getting their press passes, and going to a local bar. Decided that there was no better way to bring in the festival than to go and see the most massive film in this year's selection. Starting at 10am, the film did not let out 'till 4:15, an absolutely obnoxious amount of time to be in a theatre for one showing. Nonetheless, it did get those film-viewing muscles working again, with tomorrow promising a full day.

La Commune (Paris, 1871)
Directed by: Peter Watkins

What makes a festival film? Need they be purposely obscure, eschewing Hollywood hype in favour of independent charm? Should they be experimental, avoiding cliché, creating artwork that's both daring an provocative? Should it have subtitles, and be really long? Or should it be simply a film that is enjoyable to watch?

By whatever criteria you chose, Le Commune certainly proves to be a film exhibiting a tremendous amount of chutzpah. It can be described quite simply as a black and white digital video French communist historico-improv subtitled movie, projected digitally, with a running time just under six hours.

You know, typical multiplex trash. I think both Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore were once attached to the project while it was with Carolco.

Ambitious is a word bandied about often in film reviews, but certainly it is not overstepping the jargon code to call this film ambitious. It's central ambition, quite simply, is to make a politically-active film, a film that exhibits the persuasiveness of a manifesto, the viscerality of a tear gas-stained riot in Seattle, the introspection of a history graduate seminar.

Watkins lays bare his process. The film begins with two of the actors taking us on a tour of the small but dense set, showing the outcome of twelve days of shooting. We see the result of the actions before the actions themselves, a twist that is emphasised by stark black title cards with white writing that talk about the improv nature of the acting and the 10-minute takes used to capture narrative. The cards also interject with pithy stats, both historical and contemporary. These serve as annotations, footnotes to the principal text as the film unfolds.

The story involves what amounts to a civil war, a troubled few months in 1871 and 1872 where certain poor quarters of Paris became test cases for a communal form of direct democracy. As the film plays out, we see the subtle shifts as the sense of community and fraternity slowly gets shaped by political machination, foolish blunders, and power grabs. Indeed, it is the subtlety of this transformation that is the most impressive part of the film, the part directly related to the liberal running time. By giving an enormous amount of space in which to develop character and narrative, Watkins has created a truly original cinematic experience where things seem to happen organically. Tensions escalate without the need for swooping film score or fancy cutting. The narrative is given time to breathe and age over the course of the film.

The second half of the film finds the line blurring significantly between contemporary political comment and historical re-creation. The actors bounce in and out of period with startling dexterity, as the film always seem to make sense while breaking back and forth through the fourth wall. Decompression sessions with the actors provide some respite, while within period scenes the roving reporters manage to elicit personal claims from the performers. It is a strange amalgam of confession and improvisation that is certainly different than anything I've ever seen before.

The film is certainly long, it's very interesting, it's engaging and philosophical. It reeks of French post-modern theorizing, something that I in fact have an affinity for. It exhibits equal parts hubris and justified confidence. But, in the end, is it a good film?

To be honest, I'm not so sure.

Normally, I'd say I'd watch it again to tell. It's certainly a film that I'd likely see nowhere else but a film festival, and for that alone I'm glad to have experienced it. Its audacity is palpable, but it's certainly not for everyone. It's a film that I'd love to write a book about, but it's also a film that I'd be disinclined to watch again. Le Commune is an exhilarating, self-indulgent, overly didactic, monumental achievement. For that, indeed, it deserves high marks (or Marx, for that matter). It certainly has made me think, and that, in the end, is most certainly a positive reflection of the film itself.

Grade: B+