Martin Scorsese deems Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise, about the French Revolution in its early phase, “one of the finest and richest historical films ever made.” It provides views of the unfolding events by both common folk and royals; the system in place thinks so little of an ordinary man’s life that if he should kill a pigeon, to protect his farm’s harvest, he should be executed to set an example. Only the titled possess hunting rights, and class boundaries must be observed. The farmer in question, known as Mountain Goat, though, escapes “justice.”
With this epic, Renoir aims for timeliness, given the threat that Hitler poses to Europe, including to the spirit and liberty of France. He is keeping alive the historical memory of momentous struggles, with the Prussian army, which invades France, predicting the impending invasion in Renoir’s own time.
We only hear about the 1789 storming of the Bastille, along with King Louis XVI, who is eating in bed, exhausted after a royal hunt; but we see the culmination of the people’s march to Paris, the thunderous taking of the Tuileries Palace, in 1792. Here is a profoundly moving passage—one into which the episodic film in toto pours. Contributing significantly to the passage’s impact is the completion of Edmond Ardisson’s fine performance as Bomier.
Although Renoir’s film is temperamentally very different, the extent to which it achieves a present tense with the past anticipates Roberto Rossellini’s histories beginning with The Rise to Power of Louis XIV (1966). Of course, Renoir gives us a rousing, robust people’s story, with all the variety and patriotic fervor that this implies. In its infancy, the song that will become France’s national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” correlates musically to the film’s stirring portrait of the people of France.
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