An ambitious project aiming at retelling the story of the Paris Commune from 1871 Peter Watkins' 345 min. saga La Commune (2000) is a strange hybrid of a film - amidst the confines of a large industrial warehouse more than two hundred actors, most of them amateurs, take turns in recreating history.
La Commune is filmed in a manner that very much compliments the revolutionary spirit of its subject matter. Before each scene a short announcement (old fashioned intertitles are used) comes on the screen describing a specific event, its relevance to the Commune, the date it took place, and the role of those involved in it. Then Peter Watkins' camera follows up on what often looks like a fragment of a larger theatrical production.
As the Parisians rise against the oppressive Versailles something even more unusual happens. Two TV crews, the National TV Versailles and Commune TV, launch a tireless marathon of interviews where those taking place in the riots are asked provocative questions. Workers, soldiers, communers, share their stories in front of the camera and then quickly head back to the action.
Much like his admired Edvard Munch, a semi-documentary picture recreating the life of a struggling artist, La Commune relies on techniques that slowly transform the film into an artistic experiment many will have a difficult time grasping. The wealth of historic data here as well as the intentional blurring of the line between viewers and participants (the film-crews' work emulates what modern media would classify as "live-coverage") put an additional strain on the film's pacing. As a result I am inclined to believe that much of the focus on the historic events surrounding the rise and fall of the Commune will be significantly downplayed.
On a positive side I find the very same avant-garde approach of mixing past with present to be a stylish addition to an otherwise dry exposé of historic data. There is so much reference material in La Commune that unless you are well versed in French history chances are the bulk of it will add little, if at all, to your grasping of the events shown on the screen. The names, dates, and endless characters aren't easy to follow. They are however easier to keep track of with the two film-crews' coverage.
Shot entirely in black and white La Commune is undoubtedly the biased work of a man with a passion for politics. Left-wing politics! The denouncing statements by the rioters are full of political symbolism I sense reaches far beyond the subject matter of this film. The intended slam on mass media (the presence of the two crews is well thought of) and its tendency to mix facts with fiction is something that suggests a film with a much more complex agenda.
Amidst all of the euphoria in La Commune however I also detect a sense of nostalgia, the lost spirit of something grandiose that temporarily united people but failed to live a long enough life. It is almost as if the hectic movement of actors, filming crews, and observers is meant to signal the end of an era where community spirit wasn't a populist term. I really believe that what Peter Watkins filmed goes far beyond the revolutionary actions of a group of people. La Commune shows a brief moment of history when Parisians believed that united they can defeat an unjust system.
How Does the DVD Look?
This could have well been one of the most exciting DVD releases of the year! Yet, it might well be one of the most disappointing ones. Here's why:
La Commune arrives in a nicely designed 3DVD set where the film is spread over disc one and two and disc three is reserved for the fine documentary "The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins". The disappointing news is that First Run Features have simply copied the French release by Arte, copied and "fixed" the English subs from the French DVD, and called it a day. The result is an average, interlaced and chock-full of "ghosting", image quality that mars everything good I could say about this release. Shot with Betacam/16mm La Commune was intended for French TV (the transfer is not anamorphic) and the original aspect ratio is indeed preserved. Finally what the producers of this disc have given us is the 345 standard version and not the rare longer 560 min. cut.
The actual technical presentation is quite deceiving! The print is free of any damage or dirt, it looks above-average on standard tubes, but there is some noticeable digital noise and detail is mostly suffering from the PAL-conversion noted above. You will certainly be able to watch this disc but I just do not know how reasonable is to pay the high price tag the R1 dvd comes with given the transfer descriptiom. To sum it all up: I could not stop thinking while watching this R1 release how easy it could have been for First Run Features to simply provide a proper transfer and have an all around winner (they did not even have to spend money on the English subtitles, they were already done for them by Arte-Doriane Films).
How Does the DVD Sound?
I do not have any reservations here. The film comes with the original French 2.0 DD track which is certainly adequate enough. This mostly dialog driven feature is easy to follow and I could not detect any serious issues to report here. Of course, once again the presence of large, burnt-in, white English subtitles is disappointing.
All of the extras in this release are on disc 3. Here we have the Geoff Bowie documentary titled "The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins" (presented by the National Film Board of Canada) in which the director is shown involved with the actors explaining what the film must convey. The documentary offers an interesting look at the work of Peter Watkins by deconstructing his filming methods, elaborating on the viewer's dependence on images (modern media is being discussed), what it takes to recreate history, and how La Commune strives to avoid the clichéd way of showing the "obvious". This is indeed a most fascinating film that comes highly recommended. Next, there is a Peter Watkins biography (in text format), a gallery of trailers, and a "teaching guide" which can be accessed only via DVD-ROM drive.
I am on the fence with this release. It is so disappointing to have to deal with yet another PAL-port especially when it comes to such a highly-anticipated release. Considering the fact that the R2 French DVD is actually English-friendly I am forced to direct fans of Peter Watkins away from this R1 disc. What a missed opportunity!!