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