As a combination history lesson/film manifesto/contemporary media critique, it's safe to say there's nothing quite like La Commune (Paris, 1871). The most recent film from acclaimed British pseudo-documentarian Peter Watkins, La Commune runs about six hours and is mostly a series of filmed TV interviews and board meetings interspliced with title cards and a few digressive, static-shot leitmotifs. But this look at the tragic, failed socialist insurrection in 1871 Paris is immensely absorbing, compulsively watchable and wholly relevant.
About as far from a traditionally dramatic retelling of the Paris Commune as one can imagine, the film's only element of period realism is the costuming. Though its scene changes are innumerable, it's shot entirely in a rudimentary abandoned warehouse, an artifice Watkins never attempts to mask. On the contrary, it's an-nounced in an opening narration that we, the audience, are looking at the rubble left behind on the last day of a film shoot. Two characters proclaim themselves to be actors portraying television journalists in La Commune, and that the film will transcend its subject to comment on today's media (essentially doing film critics' deductive analysis for them).
As anachronistic as it is Brechtian, La Commune continually reveals its own formal devices while imagining a scenario where television was not only thriving in 1871, but 'newsâ?� coverage had already split into commentators with left-wing or right-wing sympathies. This is a 19th-century revolutionary movement as reported by 21st-century media.
The presence of TV cameras changes everything. Lengthy, in-depth written news is discarded in favor of fast-paced interviews for the quick consumption of a low-attention-span television audience. For the radical insurrectionists, thrilled to have a socialist network where their voices can be heard, the floor is always a stage.
Watkins amassed hundreds of actors to play the proto-communists, the TV correspondents and the Versailles army that would eventually ransack the Commune and overthrow its turbulent two-month-old government, killing some 30,000 men, women and children. Since it's a historically grounded fantasy, it's hard to know how much of what we're seeing is an accurate approximation of what actually happened. Reality constantly collides with fiction, in the very nature of Watkins' style ' fly-on-wall, cinÃ©ma-vÃ©ritÃ© ethos played out against an obvious film set ' and in the mostly improvised dialogue, in which the actors occasionally break character to muse about the media's purpose today and the experience of working with Watkins. Many of the rebellious socialist musings espoused by the characters are actually those of the actors themselves ' per Watkins' instructions ' which confounds matters even further.
That the docudrama frequently clashes with its own making ' and that it becomes difficult to distinguish between truth and conjecture ' is exactly the point. When it's all said and done, La Commune is many things, but it's primarily a historical re-enactment that addresses the problems of historical re-enactments. There will always be factual errors, concessions for dramatic potency and even sociopolitical manipulation when filtering history through a modern lens. Watkins simply foregrounds them as narrative elements.
The reasonably priced First Run Features DVD, which does an exemplary job subtitling the swarming mass of words, also includes a documentary called The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins.