Andrew Wickliffe

Danton (1983, Andrzej Wajda)

Period pieces and biopics tend to fail, at least ones made since 1950. I was just reading something about the growing audience want for realism in movies–this movement growing in the 1960s and 1970s (though the location shooting of the late 1940s is certainly a precursor)–that want made period pictures and biopics difficult… there needed to be reality. You couldn’t have Henry Frankenstein wearing a 1930s robe in late 18th century wherever (they never really specified in Bride of Frankenstein, did they?). Some films, obviously, managed to get around these difficulties. Kubrick embraced it fully–Barry Lyndon had a special lens adapted to shoot scenes by candlelight–while others ignored it and were ridiculed. I’m not sure how historically accurate Danton is, but it’s allegiances are to film, not to history. I’m pretty sure when the French Revolution was going bad, there wasn’t foreboding music in the background.

The film juxtaposes Danton and Robespierre, positing them as alter egos. It’s been a while since I read any French Revolution history, but I remember it both from undergrad and earlier and the Terror was not a particularly happy time and Robespierre never got a positive review. More recently I’ve watched Gance’s Napoleon and his Robespierre is insidious. I think Robespierre’s speech in that film was the scene where Gance swung the camera at him on a trapeze. Danton opines a different Robespierre, a sad one who’s just as upset as Danton about the Revolution going bad.

Danton is not a history lesson. Besides the one subtitle about the year, there’s none of the common exposition to inform the audience. I’ve found that exposition is only common in American films. Danton drops the viewer into a situation about a bunch of leading politicians and tells a story. The film’s present action is maybe two weeks, not longer. It gradually builds, introducing its large cast of characters (since it’s not a biopic, it takes the time to tell its story in scenes, not summary). While Gérard Depardieu appears in the first scene, he doesn’t do anything for the first twenty minutes or so. Depardieu is excellent as Danton, charming and resigned at the same time. Wojciech Pszoniak is better (which is hard, Depardieu’s real good) as Robespierre. The rest of the cast is fine, but since the film’s about those two men, they leave the impression.

I brought up Kubrick earlier because the director seems to have seen a few of his films, particularly Paths of Glory. Danton is good throughout, but it becomes excellent at the end, when it becomes fully filmic. Previously, the viewer could see right and wrong being done (by both the bad guys and the good), but at the end, director Wajda goes all out. There are hints something is going on earlier, a scene at the Convention when Robespierre speaks (no trapeze though) gets quiet when it should get loud. Reality takes a backseat for cinematic storytelling. The end of the film, however, embraces the medium to an extent I didn’t think possible in the film. In the last fifteen minutes, Wajda goes beyond–in terms of quality storytelling–what he’d set up in the previous 115 minutes. The end is devastating.

My fiancée said a history professor of ours said it was the finest film about the French Revolution. He’s probably right (I don’t remember if I’ve ever seen any other films about the French Revolution). In the American critical expectation, there seems to be the need for a film about the French Revolution to teach the audience something about said Revolution. Danton didn’t teach me much (except to check out more of Wajda’s films and Pszoniak’s too). It was concerned with being a fine film, not being a teaching experience… and it worked out really well for it.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Andrzej Wajda; screenplay by Jean-Claude Carrière, Wajda, Boleslaw Michalek, Agnieszka Holland and Jacek Gasiorowski, based on a play by Stanislawa Przybyszewska; director of photography, Igor Luther; edited by Halina Prugar-Ketling; music by Jean Prodromides; produced by Margaret Menegoz; released by Gaumont.

Starring Gérard Depardieu (Danton), Wojciech Pszoniak (Robespierre), Anne Alvaro (Eleonore Duplay), Roland Blanche (Lacroix), Patrice Chereau (Camille Desmoulins), Emmanuelle Debever (Louison Danton), Krzysztof Globisz (Amar), Ronald Guttman (Herman), Gerard Hardy (Tallien), Tadeusz Huk (Couthon), Stephane Jobert (Panis), Marian Kociniak (Lindet), Marek Kondrat (Barere de Vieuzac) and Boguslaw Linda (Saint Just).


Alien³ (1992, David Fincher), the assembly cut

So, I guess David Fincher wasn’t that upset about the “Assembly Cut” Fox did of Alien³ for their moronically-titled “Alien Quadrilogy” DVD set a few years ago, because he left his name on it. Fincher’s always badmouthing Alien³ but hasn’t got the balls needed to Alan Smithee a film (like Michael Mann has). Now, was Fincher smart not to reedit the film for DVD? Well, he couldn’t do anything to improve on the existing Alien³ theatrical cut (he’s simply not a capable enough artist), so I guess it doesn’t matter.

I’ve been hearing about this damn cut for years, probably since 1997. Everyone who loved Fincher (from Seven) and thought he was a genius (for Seven!) talked about this magic cut. Most of what’s in this “assembly cut” is in the novelization (I used to read novelizations, then I started listening to film school snobs. I’m not sure which was worse) and none of it helps the film. This cut runs about a half hour longer and includes some different scenes and shit, but mostly it just uses up the viewer’s patience. I need to watch Alien³ the regular version in a few weeks to properly grade it, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t so poorly paced. There’s a full hour of red herring here, which the studio wisely cut the hell out of. Fox was not always a terrible, inhuman studio. That happened, I’m pretty sure, after NewsCorp bought it. According to IMDb, Fincher walked before editing began, which seems to be a good thing, because this “assembly” cut does little but show how much good editing can improve a film.

Now, this cut is and has been lauded around the internet and film snobs (how much of a film snob can you be if you like Panic Room, however) have spewed praise… The fans of this cut think that calling something a “quadrilogy” is an acceptable human practice. I’m not that upset watching this cut–the DVD set was a Christmas gift and it’s not that bad, in the two and a half range, but it was a complete waste of time and did nothing but make me doubt the folks who recommended it.

Alien³, the longer cut, was supposed to be the holy grail of DVD (much like folks hope Warner will do an official, expanded Superman II). Oddly, off the top of my head, I can only think of three or four films that benefit from an expanded cut. The Big Red One, Blade Runner, Touch of Evil (to some degree, it was always great), and then it gets murky. No, wait, Star Trek: The Motion Picture became watchable. Anyway, if anyone out there has the Aussie/UK version of The Last of the Mohicans without Mann’s 2000 tweaks, let me know….

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by David Fincher; screenplay by David Giler, Walter Hill and Larry Ferguson, based on a story by Vincent Ward and characters created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett; director of photography, Alex Thomson; edited by Terry Rawlings; music by Elliot Goldenthal; production designer, Norman Reynolds; produced by Gordon Carroll, Giler and Hill; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), Charles S. Dutton (Dillon), Charles Dance (Clemens), Paul McGann (Golic), Brian Glover (Andrews), Ralph Brown (Aaron), Danny Webb (Morse), Christopher John Fields (Rains), Holt McCallany (Junior), Pete Postlethwaite (David) and Lance Henriksen (Bishop).


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