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Reel Streaming: Bastille Day–You Say You Want a (French) Revolution

One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 91


By Laurence Lerman / New York City


The storming of the Bastille on July 15, 1789
The storming of the Bastille on July 15, 1789

The French holiday known as Bastille Day, the National Day of France, is celebrated every year on July 14th. It commemorates the storming by French revolutionaries of the Bastille, the Parisian fortress largely used as a state prison by the kings of France over the centuries, on that day in 1789. It was a seminal event in the history of France, and indeed Europe, that’s generally regarded as the flashpoint of the French Revolution, the decade-long period of radical political and societal change in France that essentially marked the end of France’s ancien régime by abolishing the feudal system of the French nobility and monarchy.

In France, the day is usually celebrated with parades, picnics filled with too much food and wine, dancing, singing and fireworks. In that sense, it’s not unlike the Independence Day celebrations found in the U.S on July 4th.

On these shores, if Americans are celebrating Bastille Day, it’s usually in the form of a meal at a French restaurant that has an enticingly priced “Bastille Day Special” on its menu board.

Or, in my case, a gentle prodding of Insider readers to check out one or more of the dozens of respectable films about the French Revolution.

Though the storming of the Bastille remains one of the most vivid images of the Revolution, cinematically speaking, there’s a lot of potential in any movie about the La Révolution française. The convening of France’s Estates General in 1789; the awful violence of the Reign of Terror; the rise of Napoléon Bonaparte; France’s wars with Prussia, Britain and the Netherlands; the executions of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette by guillotine in 1793—plenty to see here!

While one shouldn’t look to the movies for an authoritative account of any significant historical event, it’s always a good place to start. If the movie is doing its job, it will whet a viewer’s appetite and inspire them to consider the possibilities of a more deeply researched dive into the subject.

And along with way, you can ooh and ahh at the lovely costumes, sets and production designs that are frequently the pièce de résistance of well-produced period films.

Here’s a quick survey of 10 good ones to help you usher in Bastille Day. Et bien, bon film à toi!

Napoléon (1927)

Directed by Abel Gance

One of the masterpieces of early cinema, French filmmaker Gance’s silent epic has lost none of its power. Following the life and career of Napoléon Bonaparte from his early military training through the War in the Vendée in 1896, Gance’s work is revolutionary in its own right, with the filmmaker using such innovative moviemaking techniques as fast cutting, handheld camerawork, multiple exposures and superimpositions. The multi-screen, triptych finale involving the simultaneous projection of three reels in a horizontal row remains a breathtaking cinematic experience.


A Tale of Two Cities (1935)

Directed by Jack Conway

Produced by David Selznick's prestige production unit at MGM (alongside that same year’s David Copperfield and Anna Karenina) Jack Conway’s polished, stately adaptation of Dickens’ 1859 historical novel starred respected British performers Ronald Colman and Elizabeth Allan and was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Film Editing.

Reign of Terror (1949)

Directed by Anthony Mann

Revolutionary France meets film noir in this striking take on the period, concerning a group of plotters who seek to bring down the agitating statesman Maximillien Robespierre and to end his bloodthirsty titular reign. Richard Basehart, Robert Cummings and Arlene Dahl star, with evocative cinematography courtesy of noir master John Alton.

History of the World, Part I (1981)

Directed by Mel Brooks

Cloris Leachman is Madame Defarge, Andreas Voutsinas and Harvey Korman are royal advisors Béarnaise and Count de Monet (pronounced “Count da Money”) and Mel Brooks is a snuff-snorting King Louis XVI in Brooks’ colorfully raunchy sendup of the Revolution. This sequence is the final segment in a film that also tackles the Stone Age, the Old Testament, the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition and the hysterical forward-thinking possibilities of Jews in space.

Danton (1983)

Directed by Andrej Wajda

Gérard Depardieu stars as champion of the people Georges-Jacques Danton, one of the leaders of the French Revolution, in Polish filmmaker Wajda’s story of Danton’s final weeks prior to his execution. Set during the Reign of Terror, the politically attuned Wajda made the film against the backdrop of martial law that had been imposed on his native Poland at the time.

La Révolution française (1989)

Directed by Robert Enrico and Richard T. Heffron

This two-part, six-hour film was co-produced by France, Germany, Italy, Canada and the UK to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. Costing $50 million (making it at the time the most expensive film ever shot in France), it’s purportedly a faithful story of the Revolution, covering everything from the convening of the Estates-General in 1789 to the death of Robespierre in 1794, and everything in-between. The international cast includes Klaus Maria Brandauer, Jane Seymour, Peter Ustinov, Claudia Cardinale, Jean-François Balmer and Sam Neill.

Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001)

Directed by Christophe Gans


Set during the middle of the Revolution, this unique period action-horror film is loosely based on dozens of real-life brutal killings that took place in the war-torn province of Gévaudan, reportedly by a crazed, wolflike animal. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop supplies the animatronics and puppetry behind the murderous beast, while Monica Bellucci provides the film with the most luscious of Italian courtesans who witnesses the horror from her perch at a local brothel.

The Lady and the Duke (2001)

Directed by Éric Rohmer

This historical romantic drama by the late French New Wave master follows the story of a Scottish aristocrat (Lucy Russell) and her former lover, the Duke of Orléans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), who find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict that is the French Revolution. Rohmer’s customary verbal sparring is abetted here by an injection of graphically depicted savagery and violence.

Farewell, My Queen (2012)

Directed by Benoît Jacquot

Based on the 2002 novel by the same name by Chantal Thomas, Jacquot’s sexy and well-appointed period drama offers a fictional account of the last days of the rule of Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger), as seen through the eyes of Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), a young servant whose job description includes her reading aloud to the queen. There’s a lot of gorgeously costumed palatial intrigue in this one.


The Visitors: Bastille Day (2016)

Directed by Jean-Marie Poiré

The third entry in the popular Visitors time-traveling comedy-adventure series that dates back to 1993, Bastille Day once again centers on the misadventures of the medieval knight Godefroy de Montmirail and his squire Jacquouille la Fripouille (returning stars Jean Reno and Christian Clavier). This time around, the pair meet their own descendants when they trip the temporal pathways and land in the middle of the French Revolution at the height of the Reign of Terror.

 

Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.



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