Danton is a slowly moving but engrossing drama that casts a unique light on the French Revolution. Director Andrzej Wajda's vision is inextricably intertwined with the Polish Solidarity movement, and the martial law that has been declared in his homeland as he films in Paris.
On one level, Danton is a straightforward retelling of the struggle for power between fellow revolutionaries Maximilien Robespierre and Georges Danton. On another level, it is a slantwise commentary on the repression going on at the time in Poland. The parallels are not exact, and Wajda himself does not claim that they are, but the film is definitely a clear statement about the importance of individual freedom.
Danton is a film constructed like a series of distorting mirrors. The cast is separated into two groups: partisans of either Robespierre or Danton. Most major characters have their reflection in a member of the other faction. Individuals from one faction rarely interact with individuals from another. Their storylines are developed and explained independently. Wajda even cast most of Robespierre's men with Polish actors, and most of Danton's with French actors, increasing the sense of separation. Robespierre and Danton themselves only appear in one scene together, in which they are alone and the contrast in their character and essence is striking. Robespierre is cold, fragile, strict and proper. Danton is glib, easy, gluttonous and interested in the fleshy pleasures. During the confrontation, an attempt at a compromise between the two, Robespierre declares that he is the only defense of the people. Danton replies that the people only want to eat and sleep in peace. Their respective outlooks could hardly be more succinctly stated.
The stark divide between these two former friends is brought to vivid life by the actors that portray them: Wojciech Pszoniak for Robespierre and Gerard Depardieu for Danton. Pszoniak's Robespierre is rigid and unyielding, while maintaining a vulnerable humanity. Robespierre is sickly and always on the verge of a collapse, supported solely by his iron will and passionate desire to preserve the Revolution. He will do anything, violate any law or principle, to that end. Depardieu's Danton, on the other hand, equally loves the Revolution, but realizes that the cost it is exacting is too high. He rarely sleeps, spending his time alternately conniving or carousing, and in his exhaustion also proceeds more on will power than physical reserves. As much as Robespierre loves the Revolution, Danton loves freedom for the people. His is a happy resignation to the circumstances he cannot control, and an eloquent prosecution of what he sees as truth. Both of these performances are spot on and enormously effective.
Though both Danton and Robespierre are presented somewhat sympathetically, in that we can see that both are fighting for something larger than themselves, the film is clearly slanted in Danton's direction. This is not a bad thing. It is good for films to have a point of view and not leave the viewer confused, and this film certainly does not fall into that error. Danton is simply a set of parallel character studies, peering deeply into two men as they fight for power. These characters are surrounded and buoyed up by the visual and audio experience of the film. The camera work is minimal and unobtrusive, and not much is needed to highlight the beauty of the locations throughout France. The attention to detail is astounding. At no point does the viewer think, "That's not real. That wouldn't exist in revolutionary France." The music is also very interesting. It is a menacing, sinister score, more comfortable in a horror film or thriller than in a period drama. It discomfits the viewer and instills a sense of dread: a dread of the mob, of betrayal, of the Revolution. The score fits perfectly with the aura of inevitability and impending catastrophe that suffuses the film.
Overall, Danton is a nearly flawless period drama. It distills the struggles of the time down to a conflict between two widely divergent men, larger than life but still made human by the talented actors who portray them. The political themes are subtle, never overwhelm the story and never compromise the dedication to art and character. These are not cardboard cutouts or caricatures, but real people with depth, good points and flaws. Danton is definitely a film to see.
The Polish "Revolution"
There is also an original trailer for Danton included, as well as a booklet with an essay about the film by Leonard Quart. The extras on Danton are uniformly intriguing and provide a deeper look into the film, its production and the reasons behind its creation. They add a useful and entertaining layer to the experience of the film.