The French Revolution: La Marseillaise (1938)

LA MARSEILLAISE, left: Maurice Toussaint on French poster art, 1938.

To view La Marseillaise, click here.

“It took me some time to understand that, for him, ideas had little meaning in themselves, and that all that mattered in his eyes was the personality of the individual expressing them.” – Alain Renoir on his father

La Marseillaise (1938) was made under intense political pressure, both from the censorious right and the Popular Front left, who partially funded this depiction of the French Revolution. Jean Renoir ended up making a film that pleased neither, depicting not the broad strokes of history but the idiosyncrasies of its individual actors. As Andre Bazin put it, Renoir “demythologizes history by restoring it to man.” It obscures the larger political movements but pauses for details like how the soldiers pad their boots or what Louis XVI thinks of tomatoes (he’s pro). After the supernova success of Grand Illusion (1937) Renoir had big plans to capture a larger panorama of the revolution, but kept whittling it down to a few engaging personalities, until we are left with a couple of hotheaded revolutionary Marseilles comrades and the aloofly charming Louis XVI (Pierre Renoir), who seems oblivious to the power shift happening right outside his doors. And yes, this marks the triumphant (?) return of my Jean Renoir series, which will run through August.

The film was proposed to and supported by the French Communist Party and the national trade union CGT (Confederation generale du travail), to be produced with Henri Jeanson. The original funding scheme was like a proto-Kickstarter, as posters and leaflets proclaimed that “for the first time, a film will be sponsored by the people themselves through a vast subscription drive.” Ambitious (and impossible) goals were set, like having teams of writers creating dialogue for different sections of the country. Jeanson and others would write for the Paris inner suburbs, while Marcel Pagnol was to write dialogues between Robespierre and Brissot. These never came to pass. Renoir and Jeanson would air their concept of the film in public meetings with Popular Front representatives, which were composed of “a hundred socialists, a hundred Communists, a hundred Radicals.” They all offered differing criticisms, one wanted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen read at the open, another was opposed to the title, while a third insisted upon a happy ending. Their suggestions were duly ignored.

They received 50,000 francs from the CGT, and 20,000 from the Union des syndicats, not nearly enough for a feature as sprawling as the one they were planning. So in the end, the feature was very traditionally funded by the production company Les Realisations d’art cinematographie (RAC), represented by Albert Pinkovitch, who had supported Grand Illusion. He pre-sold La Marseillaise for a million francs to various European and North African distributors, and Renoir received a guaranteed 400,000 francs. Jeanson considered this a betrayal, and held a grudge against Renoir for the rest of their natural lives. But it is highly unlikely they would have raised enough money through the CGT and other Popular Front groups to ever make the film.

It begins in the summer of 1789 as the King is informed of the storming of the Bastille. We see nothing of the dramatic event, only Pierre Renoir as Louis XVI, chowing down on his chicken and cheerily discussing the day’s hunt. In his appealing doofiness he recalls Hugh Laurie’s Wooster (from the BBC Jeeves and Wooster [1990-1993] adaptations). He is something of an imbecile, but is so unselfconscious it becomes charming.  In 1790 Marseilles the townspeople start hearing about the storming of the Bastille and the formation of a revolutionary volunteer army. What passes for central characters are two of these villagers, the mason Bomier (Edmond Ardisson) and a toll clerk named Arnaud (Andrex). Bomier is hotheaded and impulsive, while Arnaud is the more calculating intellect, in touch with the shifting political alliances happening in Paris. Both sign up for the army and march to Paris, where they get into scrapes with some Royalists while reluctantly facing up to the fact that this will not be a bloodless war. For much of the film’s running time the revolution seems like a lark, a thrilling adventure for two poor kids, an excuse to travel the country. But during the storming of the Tuileries Palace blood starts to get shed, and the two men witness what it means to be collateral damage to your principles.

LA MARSEILLAISE, Louis Jouvet, 1938

Renoir, though known for his brilliance with character, was also a master of screen space, and there are some remarkable battle sequences. You can see it in the first shot, guards twirling in diagonals across the screen, that Renoir can make soldiering look dynamic. The Tuileries sequence shifts on a dime from the thrill of comradeship, of the national guard joining the Marseilles volunteers, to the inhuman lineup of gun barrels positioned out of windows, as men are cut down like bags of flour dropping out of a delivery truck. It is striking how that switch registers, from the chaos of celebration, of embraces and chatter, to the rigid order of the war machine, with its perfect geometry and deadly logic. The Marseilles volunteers are pushed out, their loose band not having the same kind of brutal logic as the Swiss regiment holding out inside.

It is the Swiss who remain because the King had been spirited out. The King watches it all like a spectator, a man already outside of time. He is concerned about the angle of his wig and the taste of a tomato as the monarchy tumbles around him. Pierre Renoir plays him with such innocence and naiveté, that it’s hard to believe it’s an act. The King might just be a lovable foe, a tool of history rather than its driver. It is a film that leaves things unfinished – the King walks out of the Tuileries, his fate uncertain. He remarks upon the state of the leaves – they are falling more quickly this year. Arnaud and Bomier split up, Bomier nursing his wounds while Arnaud disappears into the fog of war. The film ends on a note of half-hearted triumph. The Tuileries has been won, but so much has been lost, and the war is just beginning.

This is the ninth part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. To read the previous entries, click below.

Whirlpool of Fate (1925)

Nana (1926)

La Chienne (1931)

Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)

A Day in the Country (1936)

The Lower Depths (1936)

Le crime de Monsieur Lange (1936)

La Bete Humaine (1938)

R. Emmet Sweeney

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