In spring 1794, Georges Danton, a key figure in the birth of the French Revolution, returns to Paris after a self-imposed exile in the country. His return bring an inevitable confrontation with Maximilien Robespierre, head of the Committee for Public Safety and the undeclared dictator of the regime, and his former colleague in national government. Robespierre’s advisors call for Danton’s head after Danton’s friends, Lucille and Camille Desmoulins, foment rebellion through the press. Danton’s initial arrogance and calm eventually give way to hopelessness as Robespierre prepares to turn on his former friends and send them to the guillotine.
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Danton is based on the play The Danton Case by Stanislawa Przybyszewska and won many awards after its release, including a BAFTA and a César. Although it helps to know an outline of the French Revolution in order to understand the gravity of Danton, its power and relevance to modern day politics make it easy to enjoy in any context. If you enjoy watching the interplay between two charismatic political men, the personal lives that revolve around them, and the inexorable pull of history-in-the-making, you can appreciate the film at any level.
Danton begins as Georges Danton (Gérard Dépardieu) and his second wife, the young Louison, return to Paris after Danton’s self-imposed exile in the provinces in the spring of 1794. They are faced, first, with the adoration of the crowds as Danton is a national hero and a popular figure to the sans culottes of Paris. Then as they ride past the Place de la Concorde and its omnipresent guillotine, it is not difficult to imagine that thoughts of mortality cross Danton’s mind. At the same time, in a simple apartment in Paris, Danton’s former ally Maximilien Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak) is recovering from five weeks of fever. Eleonore, (Anne Alvaro) his mistress and fanatical republican, and Antoine St Just, (Boguslaw Linda) his crony, supervise his return to politics at large and the Committee for Public Safety in particular.
Danton’s return has rallied his friends around him, who all expect him to stage a military coup. “Who’d dare accuse me?” he replies, all nonchalance. As long as he has his voice in the press, “I’m more powerful than that powdered charlatan.” Eventually the tensions come to a head, and Robespierre requests an audience with Danton. Danton prepares an elaborate meal while his friends lie in wait to listen to any compromising accusations Robespierre might let slip. While the immaculate Robespierre and the gourmand Danton sit together, their differing approaches become obvious. “Divided, we both fall,” Danton urges. Robespierre begs Danton not to oppose him; Danton questions Robespierre’s motives and his zeal for representing the common man. “How could you know them? You forget we’re made of flesh and blood!” When Danton’s outburst fails to sway Robespierre, the two reach an uneasy impasse. “How could we be driven apart . . .?” Danton laments as Robespierre leaves.
There is little contrast more apparent than the phlegmatic audience between Danton and Robespierre and the one between Robespierre and his friend Desmoulins. Robespierre appeals to Desmoulins. “You’re in grave danger—Danton is using you.” Robespierre’s warning falls on deaf ears and despite the protests of Lucille Desmoulins, Desmoulins considers his arrest imminent. The scenes in the squalid, sprawling Concièrgerie Prison contrast with the full-scale riot in the hall of the National Assembly as news quickly comes: Danton, Desmoulins, and their friends have been arrested in the early hours of the morning.
At first the Assembly demands satisfaction from Robespierre and the Committee for Public Safety for the unprovoked arrest, but Robespierre quickly uses fear and his superb oration skills to turn the tide. Danton’s friends in the Assembly, fearful for their lives, sell him out. In the Luxembourg Prison, Danton counsels the despairing Desmoulins, “We had to let them do it.” Danton’s moral courage has convinced him that France will not see the corruption within its government unless heroes like him are sacrificed. At a farce of a trial, Danton is allowed seven jurors instead of the normal twelve, his witnesses are delayed, and he is eventually debarred from his own defense, having shouted himself hoarse in an appeal to the common people watching the trial. Danton, Desmoulins, and the others are taken to be executed by guillotine. Danton correctly predicts that Robespierre will quickly follow him in infamy.
As the film was originally based on a play, it has a stagey feel, and long speeches and sections of dialogue abound. However, this is entirely appropriate to the subject matter—great orators like Danton and Robespierre whipped up passion and zeal in their speeches and the actors in Danton are allowed to do this in a manner so convincing, not only is the audience forgetful of the fact they are actors, we, too, feel the excitement of the Revolution. Dépardieu is, as ever, a force of nature as the courageous, loud-mouthed Danton, with a secret subtle side. Pszoniak is also superb as Robespierre, a man of many faults but a true idealist. When coiffed and shaved, this supposedly fey man cannot bear to look in the mirror. A sea of contrasts, he has to stand on tip-toes to address the Assembly as he rants at them. His mistress is shown to be a perversion of the ineffable caricature of his behavior: she beats her younger brother until he can recite the Rights of Man.
Danton is still a subject well-suited for film, as the edgy, unsettling score by Jean Prodoromides never lulls the viewer into a fall sense of security: we are aware from the beginning of the seriousness and brutality the debates of ideals translate into working reality. Though the sets, photography, and costumes are perfect evocations of the end of the eighteenth-century, we are never allowed to distance ourselves from these people in wigs and tricolors; Danton’s strength is in its immediacy.