Part documentary and part historical pageant, Peter Watkins' fascinating, if sometimes slow-moving, exercise in "You Are There" filmmaking brings the past to vivid life. Paris, 1871: In the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, the City of Light briefly becomes a socialist commune and Watkins picks up the story in the tense months following the initial peace agreement under which France agreed to pay Germany an indemnity of 5 billion francs and surrender its rights to the territories known as Alsace and Lorraine. While these terms satisfy the newly installed French government led by Adolphe Thiers, working-class Parisians are incensed. The residents of Paris endured an extended siege without surrendering and regard their government’s capitulation as an enormous betrayal. Their discontent erupts into action on March 18, when Thiers sends the French army to seize weapons held by Paris’s National Guard, an independent militia largely comprised of opponents to his administration. Backed by working class Parisians, the Guard stands its ground and is eventually joined by waves of deserters. Thiers and his outnumbered loyalists flee and ten days later the citizens of Paris establish a commune run by an elected municipal council. At first the lower classes rejoice in their newfound political power, but the Commune quickly bogs down in endless bureaucracy and petty infighting. Meanwhile, the French army regroups and the city is again finds itself under siege. These events unfold through the eyes of two television journalists (Gerard Watkins and Aurelia Petit) representing the independent news channel, Commune TV; they roam the streets of Paris' 11th District, interviewing soldiers, teachers, storekeepers and the few remaining members of the bourgeois class. What could have been a dry history lesson is filled with moments of passion and excitement; Watkins’ handheld camera lends the proceedings a dramatic urgency that holds your attention even when the actors are simply sitting around discussing the making of the movie (the film repeatedly breaks the fourth wall, particularly in the second half). The cast does an excellent job of inhabiting their roles; all their conversations and debates appear entirely improvised. That said, six hours is a long time to watch what is essentially a Colonial Williamsburg-like historical re-enactment. And while the sections dealing directly with the Commune are thought provoking, Watkins repeated attacks on the news media seem overly shrill in comparison. He makes a number of valid points on this subject, but the intensity of his argument often seems excessive.
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- Released: 2000
- Rating: NR
- Review: Part documentary and part historical pageant, Peter Watkins' fascinating, if sometimes slow-moving, exercise in "You Are There" filmmaking brings the past to vivid life. Paris, 1871: In the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, the City of Light briefly be… (more)