Despite being born in Surrey, British director Peter Watkins has evolved into a nomadic artist, having lived in Sweden, Canada, Lithuania, and now residing in France. He has made films in many more countries, including America (the seething attack on the country’s foreign and domestic policy in Punishment Park) and Denmark (where he made rarer films, such as Evening Land or The Seventies People). Watkins’ career in the United Kingdom was relatively short-lived: after producing a pseudo-documentary about the 1746 Battle of Culloden — a film which began Watkins’ signature style of reconstructing history as a live TV event — he went on to direct The War Game, a film so radically terrifying that the BBC instantly pulled it from being broadcast, resulting in it only seeing the light of day in the 1980s. The War Game did go on to win an Academy Award, but its suppression otherwise — and another subsequent failed film, Privilege — provided enough incentive for Watkins to leave his birth country and work elsewhere.
At the time of this writing, it’s been two decades since Watkins’ most recent film, La Commune (Paris, 1871), was released. A colossal piece of radical and provocative art, it could easily serve as his magnum opus. La Commune sees Watkins take a cast of over 200 people and reenact the events of the Paris Commune: a four-month period where the French working class revolted against the government and took back control of Paris. A barren soundstage is used to recreate the streets of the district, with small houses and shops dressed to the absolute minimum. The tight setting is crucial for driving the drama of the film, which largely comes from conflicts between the working-class radicals and the bourgeoisie aristocrats who refuse to flee from the Commune. As with many of his previous films, Watkins hired almost entirely non-professionals, with a myriad of political opinions, ranging from dedicated socialists who wish to continue the legacy of revolutionary politics, to conservatives who continue to hold the workers of the commune in disdain. This decision often pits the characters against each other, with the arguments often becoming incredibly chaotic and impassioned, which over time blurs the lines between performance and reality; the convergence of these two ideas being a theme at the very core of the film.
La Commune boasts aesthetic qualities that were featured in Watkins’ previous films, specifically around the concept of the pseudo-documentary; like Culloden, it takes a piece of history that, despite being well-documented, exists far back in the annals of time and attempts to present it as if it has just happened. With this film, Watkins takes the Paris Commune and imagines how it would’ve taken place with the inclusion of live television, mostly showing the events through the eyes of varying news teams as they document (or frequently lie about) what’s occurring both within the Commune and in the exiled government who have retreated to Marseille. However, before all of this, Watkins spends a good amount of time showcasing Parisian life at the end of the Franco-Prussian war, and on the cusp of the revolution. Through a series of interviews, many working-class citizens of Paris discuss the abysmal living conditions, precarious work, and structural damage caused by shelling from the Prussians; they also discuss how the previous French revolutions have done little to help improve the material conditions of the working class. Feelings of both melancholia and fatalism pervade each interview, with many people voicing an apparent hopelessness for their current situation.
Even before this, there comes another introduction to the film — which begins to highlight the many layers of metatextuality contained herein — delivered by the two lead journalists (played by Gérard Watkins — Peter Watkins’ son — and Aurélia Petit) who introduce themselves and their roles in the film, and who also guide the viewer through the soundstage in the aftermath of filming the last scene, in which the Communards are massacred and arrested en masse by the French army. It’s an interesting decision to begin the film this way, especially with the actors directly informing the viewer that this film is not only about the Commune, but also the role of mass media, both past and present. Although this makes sense, given how direct the film frequently is, it also leaves behind any concept of subtlety in its depiction of mainstream media, with the news teams constantly lying about the Commune in an attempt to stir hate against it. The reactionary forces of the army and police are similarly handled, as Watkins constantly highlights their contempt for the working-class radicals and their attempt to rebuild society as an inherently equal world, not one owned by men of capital and high-ranking aristocrats. It’s a reasonable portrayal, but too much attention is tuned to this depiction rather than fleshing out how the Commune’s slow descent into bureaucracy eventually gave way to corruption and mishandling of resources.
Interwoven between the re-enactments are scenes where the actors shed the skin of their characters and discuss the events of 1871 and how applicable they are to modern-day politics, causing Ken Loach-style debates that play out in static long takes. As La Commune progresses, it becomes increasingly more difficult to distinguish between the real-life actors’ opinions and the characters they are playing. During the film’s final scenes — which see the Communards engage in firefights with the French army on makeshift barricades — the journalist, played by Watkins, who in a sense becomes an extension of the director himself, asks each member if they would fight like this in real life during a revolution. Each actor delivers a highly emotional and passionate response, with most of them proclaiming that they would. While they answer these questions — which occasionally spill out into broader arguments and debates — they continue to remain in character, reacting to the chaos unfolding around them. Watkins uses the improvisation of the cast, along with the film’s disparate narrative threads, to weave revolutionary ideas from the past and present; each actor not only learns about history by recreating these events, but they use this history to more finely examine contemporary politics and their place within them, allowing La Commune to become a truly dialectical film.
Orson Welles once claimed that he believed black-and-white was the only way to truly capture great performances, because the lack of color resulted in less distraction and allowed the drama to become the focal point. Intentionally or not, the stark black-and-white hews closely to Welles’ assertion. Capturing the chaos and urgency of both the performers and atmosphere perfectly, with the film never lapsing into confusion or convolution despite the vast number of characters and fast-paced nature of the narrative. In many ways — from the bombardment of historical detail to the film’s documentary style — it feels like Watkins is trying to craft something more akin to a historical object about the Paris Commune rather than anything explicitly cinematic, though he gracefully does so, despite the film’s dense subject matter and lengthy runtime, without threatening drabness. The director’s approach is invigorating in both its ability to entertain, in a purely dramatic sense, and also in its passion for truly radical politics that seldom sees an expression in the mainstream, or otherwise in cinema really. La Commune is one of this century’s angriest films, its veins coursing with impassioned rage against the corruption of both the media and the state. And for Watkins, after battling as many censorship and funding problems as he has, that anger feels all the more earned.