At the moment we are undergoing a bit of an obsession with the French Revolution. Perhaps it is because we spent one month where every two blocks you see the three immortal words that look great carved in stone but that we haven't quite figured out how to achieve yet: liberte, egalite, fraternite. To know that these and other thoroughly enlightened concepts which gave rise to the modern state, to what we now consider democracy, came hand in hand with an unbelievable bloodbath, well, it is all very sexy and important and we wish to learn more about it.
So off to see Danton, showing at the Lincoln Center film retrospective dedicated to mon amour, Gerard Depardieu. Danton was directed by Andrej Wajda, the Polish film director, and was made in 1983 as a French-Polish coproduction to commemorate the anniversary of the French Revolution. At the time, it also famously resonated as a thinly veiled metaphor for what was happening with Lech Walesa and Solidarity in Poland. Today, it is worth seeing because what it says about the perversion of ideas by power unfortunately still holds (cf, the Bush Admin.); but also to watch two monster actors face to face: mon amour who plays Danton, and the great Polish actor Wojciech Pszoniak, who plays Robespierre.
The movie is very stagy and theatrical, but it is a visceral and cogent illumination of how power corrupts and how idealistic and idealized heroes are all too human. The tour de force is the great scene between Danton, an unfettered sybarite with some sort of a conscience that the ideals he fought for and the institutions he helped invent are being perverted by the Terror, and Robespierre whose cold rationality has led him to guillotine pretty much everybody with a functioning head on their shoulders in the name of keeping those ideals alive (and with a shudder you notice that Robespierre's coldness reminds you of Dick Cheney, except the latter doesn't even have the good intentions, or a heart). It is not only a magnificent acting duel, with mon amour trying to charm and seduce Robespierre through food and wine and humor, and the other one cold as ice trying to guard himself from those advances. It is as precise and strategic as a chess game.
Students of acting: this scene is a master class in acting technique (beats, low and high status, listening, what the other wants, conflict, tension, you name it), but you never notice it because you are too taken by the intense drama that is unfolding across a table.
In any case, to cut to the chase, many heads rolled.
Later at night, as we walked home from a very satisfying chocolate malt and French Toast (like Danton, we are unfettered sybarites) we saw a woman rummaging in the garbage. On closer inspection, someone had thrown away a bunch of very respectable books, a veritable cache of culture. So what would be our joy and surprise, to find, sitting dejected near the gutter, Citizens, Simon's Schama massive book about the French Revolution! We may not have seen the meteors, but we believe that the universe is trying to tell us something.
The plan is to start reading Bertrand Russell's a History of Philosophy, and then do the massive Schama book. By the time we re finished with the two, if we are still breathing, we will be able to solve all the world's problems. Stay tuned.