La Commune

Michael Hayward

Remember those student days when, in preparation for your final exam, you’d optimistically sit through a movie version as a substitute for the book itself? And were nonetheless astonished at your failing grade in English 11 (red pencil notes to the effect that “Vladimir Nabokov—not Stanley Kubrick—was the author of Lolita”) or History 11 ( “There is no evidence to support your contention that Xerxes was an eight-foot tall, waxed, bisexual warrior draped in chains”). Be warned, then: at almost six hours in length, Peter Watkins’ La Commune (First Run Features dvd) might seem to be the perfect crash course on the 1871 Paris uprising, when Parisians rose against the national government in the wake of the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war; but this fascinating documentary contains a number of anachronisms that might give you away. For starters: the Paris Commune was not actually covered by competing tv news crews (National tv Versailles, offering the official version of events, and Commune tv, which gives the rebels’ point of view); this is simply a framing device, a Watkins trademark that he used to great effect in Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965), a pair of controversial documentaries made for the BBC. Filmed entirely inside an enormous warehouse in a Paris suburb, with a cast of over two hundred non-professional actors, La Commune is a brave attempt to synthesize hundreds of contemporary accounts from a wide range of sources, and to provide an accessible account of complex historic events. We hear from the Communards and the bureaucrats, as each explains their position to “reporters.” It’s not the same as being on the spot, but it’s a fascinating approximation.

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