Story begins March 17, 1871 and ends two months later. Watkins introduces the movie via his two commune reporters (one of whom is played by Peter’s son Gérard, who has also acted in They Came Back and Diving Bell and the Butterfly), showing the set (a factory on the former site of Georges Melies’ studio!) at the end of the shoot. The set is minimal – walls and rooms were constructed, and props seem accurate and well-placed, but you never doubt that you’re on a set – you can see the walls, the lights, sort of Dogvillian. And the camera – of course the actors talk directly to the camera, since this is a Peter Watkins film. The cameraman (Odd Geir Saether from Edvard Munch) is always mobile, always shooting full cartridges at a time to be (slightly) edited later on.
There are intertitles which comment on the action, fill in missing context, flash-back-and-forward, connect the revolutionary ideas of the commune with the present realities of France. People break out of character mid-scene to talk about the film and about their own present situations, to comment on the relevance of the film and of the commune – but they’re not talking to us, exactly, telling us what to do or think, it’s more that they’re working out their own thoughts and we can make what we will of it. That’s not to say the film is unbiased – it’s extremely pro-commune. The mass media is represented by a more traditionally shot right-wing telecast which gives twisted accounts of the events we see in the commune.
An official statement:
Most of the actors didn’t have screen credits before this one, but some have gone on to appear in other movies (The Barbarian Invasions, Eric Rohmer’s Lady and the Duke, Science of Sleep, Miracle at St. Anna, etc). They workshopped the story and their own roles, and came up with their own dialogue, full participants of the film. Some of this I learned from the very good hour-long doc on the disc The Universal Clock, which dares to ask questions (like whether Watkins is responsible for his own marginalization) as it discusses his career and the making of La Commune. This would actually be a fine standalone film to play before some of PW’s better movies for the uninitiated – it stands high above the usual DVD-extra fare.
Lots of death and guns in the movie, all offscreen. Nobody is ever shown killed, no actor ever plays dead:
There’s a lot to say about the Commune and I’m not gonna say it all here. I’m worn out on the topic from watching all seven hours on these DVDs, and I’m pretty sure I’ll remember the important stuff (plus PW’s excellent website has a good summary).
The hated bourgeoisie:
Was the film good, though? Well, it’s far from my favorite Watkins feature (I’d maybe put it above The Gladiators). While it’s not dry and academic, it’s not exactly immersive – and while I wouldn’t say there were unnecessary scenes or that it should’ve been shorter, it’s exhausting at its present length, a mountain of a movie. The guy’s got a point that films and videos should not have to fit the “universal clock” of a television schedule, but this one didn’t fit the clock of my work week, and even with Katy out of town and my evenings supposedly all to myself, it still took me three nights to watch. So it’s an extremely admirable production, in every sense, about an important topic, but unlike other monumentally long films (hello, Satantango) I’m in no hurry to see it again.