Directed by Andrzej Wajda
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 136 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 French
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: March 31, 2009
Review Date: March 20, 2009
Knowing some of the politics behind the aftermath of the French Revolution will go a long way toward one’s thorough enjoyment of Andrzej Wajda’s Danton. This intricate character study of two former friends split apart by political ideology contains a riveting central performance and a beautiful period depiction of the Reign of Terror in post-revolution France. Some of the pacing can be a bit lethargic at times, and the dubbing of some actors occasionally leaves a lot to be desired. Still, Danton brings the politics of the late eighteenth century to life and presents an eerie parallel to the then-current political upheaval in Poland.
It’s 1794, and France has been in turmoil for its two years as a Republic. A lack of food, housing, and general injustice to the people have brought the country to near-riot. The Committee of Public Safety is headed by one of the Revolution’s heroes, Maximilien Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak). Robespierre considers the revolution still to be in progress with harsh punishments being meted out to people considered enemies of the state. Consequently, his Committee of Public Safety is being accused of heartless, dictatorial transgressions of the people’s rights that the revolution was fought to bring back to the people of France. Foremost among the dissenters is Robespierre’s one-time friend Georges Danton (Gerard Depardieu). He believes the committee is power mad and wants it dissolved, and he believes he has the support of the people to bring about its ouster. Having trod softly around each other during the proceeding two years, the two former friends now declare war on one another with Robespierre striking the first blow: the arrests of Danton, his friend Camille Desmoulins (Patrice Chereau) who printed Danton’s propagandistic essays, and several others. A public trial will allow the two enemies to see who has the true support of France.
Those not familiar with the French Revolution and the subsequent Reign of Terror might have occasional problems keeping the cast of characters and their motivations straight in the movie as director-co-writer Andrzej Wajda barrels through the political maneuverings without taking a deep breath. He does take some precious time with two striking sequences: a lavish dinner Danton prepares for his showdown with Robespierre and the later trial sequence which extends over several days. They’re both staged quite wonderfully, especially the tribunal with the tide of support shifting constantly as eloquent speeches do much to alter perceptions of guilt and innocence. Elsewhere, scenes are allowed to drag a bit with their excessive talk, and the cast, a mixed bag of French, Polish, and German performers, doesn’t always seem to be on the same page. Additionally, the music by Jean Prodromides alternates between effective and infuriating (a cacophonous drone which also occasionally ruined fellow Pole Jerzy Skolimowski’s Barrier some years earlier with its overuse.)
There’s no denying Gerard Depardieu’s dynamism as Danton. Puffed up with confidence in the love the people have for him and railing in court about his desire for justice and equality for all, Depardieu is magnificent. Wojciech Pszoniak looks very much like portraits of Robespierre, but his performance is hampered by the dubbed French voice assigned to him sapping some of the power from his portrayal. Patrice Chereau makes a wonderfully wounded Camille, frightened of execution but resolute in his faithfulness to Danton. As the turncoat Bourdon, Andrzej Seweryn overcomes the dubbing with a fiery courtroom monologue. Angela Winkler’s Lucille Desmoulins has both some good and bad moments supporting her husband and shocked at Bourdon’s betrayal.
The film’s 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio is replicated here with anamorphic enhancement. In the main, it’s a mostly sharp, lovely transfer with skin tones perhaps a bit on the pinkish side but otherwise accurate and appealing. Color depth is good overall though reds can sometimes be noisy. The natural grain gives the image a very film-like appearance. Subtitles are in white and are easy to read. The film has been divided into 21 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track begins a little roughly with some bumping noises that don’t appear to be part of the sound mix, but afterwards, the track is clear with only the ADR occasionally betraying itself with a dry, flat tone.
Disc one contains the film and the original theatrical trailer which runs 3 minutes and is presented in anamorphic widescreen.
Disc two contains the majority of the bonus features.
“Wajda’s Danton” is a 42-minute behind-the-scenes documentary prepared in 1983 for the film’s release. It shows the director working with the actors in blocking and during rehearsals, assistants working with extras on their singing of “Le Marseilles,” the crew doing a bit of complaining about the director’s last-minute excessive demands, an interview with star Gerard Depardieu, and the discussion about the film’s parallels to the political situation in Poland at the time of filming. It’s presented in 4:3.
“The Polish Revolution” is a 17-minute anamorphic dual interview with director Andrzej Wajda and film critic Jerzy Plazewski giving background on the original play which the script was adapted from, detailing the luxury of shooting in Paris away from the strife that was happening in Poland at the time, and refuting notions that the story was shot as a kind of comment on the Polish Solidarity movement of the 1980s.
Co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière speaks for 14 ½ minutes about adapting the script for the screen, discussing the importance of landing Gerard Depardieu for the lead to assure financing for the project, and the importance of a non-Frenchman making this story of the French Revolution. It’s in anamorphic widescreen.
The enclosed 14-page booklet contains a cast and crew list, some color and black and white production stills, and an appreciative essay on the movie by film professor Leonard Quart.
Those interested in the politics or the drama of the French Revolution will find much to like in Danton. With a stirring central performance and an evocative representation of its period, it’s a film that earns a definite recommendation.