‘Nous sommes les enfants de la patrie. Le jour de gloire est arrivé!’
One of the great turning points in France’s long history is, unsurprisingly, the French Revolution. A massive gathering of people from across the country who, along the years, grew weary and frustrated with the current state of affairs, a state which awarded the common people petty rights and privileges in the face of the monarch and the aristocracy. Jean Renoir’s elaborate film depicts the period of 1789 to 1792 when the people’s revolution forced King Louis XVI out of the Château de Versailles. We see the historic events through the eyes of many characters, most notably a group of volunteer soldiers from Marseille, the aristocrats, some who fear an impending calamity while other feel reassured by the presence of the Prussian army, and even the king himself, played by Jean Renoir’s brother, Pierre.
Even by late 1930s standards, there is little doubt that director Renoir was thinking big when creating this particular movie. The sets and locations are as varied as they come, the amount of principle characters and secondary roles is impressive, and the amount of costumes, and well as their authentic look, bring a unquestionable gravitas to the project. I was continuously impressed with the grand nature of several scenes, especially those near the end of the picture when the guns go blazing. Fun stuff, to be sure. The title of the film, La Marseillaise, plays a large role in the movie in that the gutsy soldiers we have the pleasure of following are from Marseilles, but that isn’t all. As our band of heroes sign their names on the subscription list, a familiar tune (well, familiar if you’ve ever heard the France national anthem before) can be heard sung from a neighbouring room. This being the first time it is ever sung, one of the soldiers curiously asks his friend who is also waiting in line ‘What’s that guy singing?’ A playful little nod to history in the making which produced a chuckle from me.
Renoir had more than just a few epic scenes to impress the viewers. Indeed, the director opts for a fine balance between small character moments and grand speeches and marches. Rather than concentrate strictly on the grandeur of the proceedings (and potentially getting lost in said grandeur), he delicately tiptoes into the thoughts and feelings of regular folk who chose to sacrifice their lives for the sake of liberty and equality by joining the militia. We get to spend the most time with Jean-Joseph Bomier (Edmond Ardisson) and his friends Javel (Paul Dulac) and Moissan (Jean-Louis Alibert). They are a lively bunch, with Jean-Joseph taking center stage as the more finicky and temperamental member of the band. His emotions may waver a bit much sometimes, but his heart is always in the right place and he chooses to fight alongside his long time friends to defend his beliefs and desires. Edmond Ardisson gives a very entertaining performance. It is a bit showy at times, but I suspect that had more to do with the nature of the character and how it was written. He has some wonderful facial expression with added some terrific range and dynamism to Jean-Joseph. I wouldn’t to say he had a plastic face, that might be going overboard, but the man certainly could inject significant energy into his performance. His patriots in arms are also given some depth by actors Paul Dulac and Jean-Louis Alibert, with Dulac giving his character an interestingly relaxed air given the surrounding circumstances. They make for a genuinely fun band to follow around, and therein lies another one of the film’s strengths: the ability to craft to attaching characters without an overly large amount of backstory. The performances and Renoir’s brisk pacing are sufficient to carry La Marseillaise in the first two thirds.
Love for one’s beliefs, be it country or king, is not only for the regular folk. The story allows the viewer to have a peek into the debates, sometimes heated, from within the aristocracy and the king’s inner circle. Not everyone sees eye to eye, and while most would not want to abandon their place in society if given the choice, some have begun to understand that there may just be some cracks in the system. These scenes are a welcome addition for several reasons. Firstly, it shows that Renoir has the sensibility to not make the antagonists a single minded entity hell bent on crushing the rebellion, which it wasn’t anyways, so we have some sense of realism. But these signs of discord from within the aristocracy also provide a sense of hope in that some people who will be involved in dramatic events which are to follow could opt for a peaceful resolution. History shall dictate otherwise for many others who vowed to defend the monarch, but these scenes in particular lend an interesting dynamic to those we could just as easily lump into the category of ‘antagonist.’ One of the more unique performances in the film is that by Pierre Renoir, who portrays none other than King Louis XVI. His presence is more of a cameo than anything, appearing but during the opening minutes and for about another 5 near the end, but his portrayal is that of a king who is clearly oblivious to the ongoing events within his kingdom and persists with his nonchalant attitude until he is asked to fire up the troops in the Versailles court just prior to the rebellion onslaught. He returns to his quarters a much quieter, subdued man, most likely shaken by the grim reality of what is to follow: a war, probably within his own court yard, with the possibility of his reign coming to an end. Perhaps it is the furious devotion some of the troop members display as he passes them by, a vivacity for something that even as a king Louis XVI has yet to fully understand. Whatever is it, his 10 minutes screen time are worth your time.
Something that embarrassingly failed to strike me as I watched the movie but that felt so obvious once I read a little bit about it afterwards was the timing of the film’s production and release, 1938. The Nazis have been in command of Germany for some years already and are putting remarkable pressure on Europe’s large powers, as well as already dominating some of the continent’s smaller nations. In many ways, and I’m almost certain this was intentional in certain respects, La Marseillaise functioned not merely as a bit of entertaining historic pulp, but also as a rallying cry for the French nation at large, what with the impending actions from Nazi Germany lying ahead. It makes the presence and depiction of the Prussians, who are clearly the most draconian defenders of the French monarch and therefore enemies of the freedom fighters, quite pertinent.
This was a different effort from Jean Renoir. His skills as a visual director are once again there for all to admire, with some fine and smooth camera work and editing giving some character to the storytelling, but Renoir chose to base his film in reality. It was a bold effort and the effort pays off nicely. It may have consisted of propaganda upon its release (and it remains a valuable piece of cinema history because of that), it also works as solid entertainment, with fun performances, some effective crowd rallying scenes and a deliciously action packed climax.