The poster and DVD cover for Peter Watkins’ La Commune (Paris, 1871).
A reporter wielding a microphone moves towards officers of national government troops to interview them about the impending mission to march on Paris and seize the National Guard’s cannon, the latter’s primary military defence, at Montmartre.
When the same reporter goes to speak to the young government army recruits, he hears complaints of material depravation, tactical incoherence, and – most importantly – that many of the soldiers intend to refuse orders to fire on unarmed Parisians, as their officers already suspect.
The reporter enters the 11th arrondissement of Paris, first talking to working-class citizens ecstatic at the insurrectionary turn of events.
Commenting to viewers how it is difficult it is to home in on a straight version of what has happened, the reporter interviews upper-class and bourgeois figures variously aghast, concerned, and appalled at the turn of events, expressing worry and defiance.
‘Versailles TV’ studio broadcasts are immediately recognizable due to a presentational and ‘objective’ style entirely familiar from viewers’ own experience of both commercial and public sector studio-set news and current affairs formats across the world.
‘Commune TV’ broadcasts are solely comprised of location footage comprised of brief interviews with everyday people and quick on-the-spot reports by the same two journalists, in both cases the people on screen looking right into the camera, the French cinéma vérité style made to match a loosely revolutionary political position.
Seeing the same footage of Commune TV journalists reporting and celebrating the Commune’s declaration (and elsewhere other TV broadcasts from both networks) in 4/3 transmission format on a television set fifteen minutes later makes us question whether the extensive reports and interviews throughout La Commune in the process of being filmed comprise ‘live broadcasts’, ‘raw footage’, or a later ‘screening’ thereof after possible editing (which of course is the case for our film itself).
After a minute of introductory text screens setting up the film’s historical subject, the first image we see is a composition featuring dishevelled materials that could be for on-screen or off-screen use in La Commune’s production, or belonging to the theatre troupe usually occupying the warehouse, or neither.
One of the many passageways and rooms filled with furniture, debris, and weapons we see in the middle section of the film’s first long tracking shot, which now features tighter framing but still clearly showing the warehouse ceiling and lights.
More tightly framed again, but with artificial lighting streaming in from above the set’s ceiling-less walls, the ongoing travelling shot evokes the ad-hoc administrative processes and ‘justice’ enabling the mass-executions of Communards that we are told by the voice-over occurred ‘yesterday evening’.
While the majority of the film’s copious white-on-black text screens inform the viewer of crucial historical events leading up to and during the Paris Commune, also increasingly offering contextualization and commentary thereon from a present-day perspective and undertaking many comparisons between the two eras, some text screens concentrate on the film’s own production techniques, in this instance highlighting Watkins’ preference for long takes. The full translation of this text is as follows: ‘The scenes in the 11th district [arrondissement] were filmed in 13 days, mostly using long, 10-min. “sequences shots”, and chronologically following the Commune events.’
Audio interviews with government military leaders at Satory decrying the Communards as a criminal rabble are accompanied by images of the latter dancing in Paris.
During a rather shambolic troop drill for new National Guard recruits, the first scene played out in La Commune where the people on screen do not look exclusively at the camera, the actors still periodically ‘notice’ it when in close proximity, here seen when a Guardsman briefly glances right at the viewer before returning his gaze to the comparably more dramatic scenario played out just beyond the frame as the commander speaks to the men.
The film’s liberal use of a 360-degree space with a hand-held camera means that when an edit technically crosses the ‘180-degree’ line (usually ensuring there is no confusion of left-right screen directionality) it is barely noticed. Here a National Guard captain addresses new recruits seemingly just off-screen to the right, whereas in the previous shot the latter had themselves looked screen right (meaning he would have been looking left if in frame) as they listened to, and interrupted, his speech.
Peter Watkins’ singular, reflexive vision
Like both Henri Lefebvre and the Paris Commune, Peter Watkins remains a not especially prominent name within the English-speaking world, despite having made two much discussed, medium length British films dating from the mid 1960s. A brief introduction of this singular figure is thereby in order before quickly moving on to analyze his last completed work, La Commune. Starting with early shorts in the 1950s, Watkins created a series of highly unique, reflexive films for both television and cinema up to 2000 (following which he has thus far ceased filmmaking activity). Fitting neither drama nor documentary definitions but incorporating and mutually complicating elements of both to often-radical ends, in interrogating either past or possible very near-future events these films offer living, contested, and palimpsestic versions of history.
Viewers are forced into active participation with Watkins’ often obsessive charting of a specific and ongoing socio-political, moral, and cultural crisis seen up close through each film’s very particular, local case study that at the same time crosses national and global contexts. Frequently, such context and stories are intimately connected to revolutionary energy and potential, be it personal, social, cultural, or more overtly political. His best known work remains the early BBC productions, The Battle of Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965). The latter deals with the likely impact of a nuclear attack on Britain resulting from its Cold War role, and suffered a television broadcast ban for 20 years (despite winning an Academy Award for best documentary). Leaving Britain, since the late 1960s Watkins has had a productive but sporadic, consistently controversial international career, making a series of remarkable films around the world such as Punishment Park (USA, 1970), Edvard Munch (Norway, 1974), Resan/The Journey (made across 10 different countries, 1987), Fritänkaren/The Freethinker (Sweden, 1994), and La Commune (France). The director has nearly always fallen out with the often state-based institutional-production bodies commissioning this work, in large part due to the films’ determinedly charting often subterranean, unflattering aspects of the given national culture, and the state’s frequent subservience to imperial and military power.
Following the pattern throughout his career, after La Commune’s completion Watkins fought lengthy battles with its would-be exhibitors in the face of their rejection of the finished film (including a shorter cut). Such familiar problems appear to have finally taken their toll, with Watkins subsequently retiring from active filmmaking. The film’s full-length version finally received its premiere on French television when most people were asleep. [open notes in new window] If Watkins’ work typically contradicts the dominant national mythology within a particular project’s national funding/production/cultural context, as the 1960s receded his cinema remained both firmly wedded to historical developments while being also starkly at odds with prevailing ideological currents. This dissonance can be seen in Watkins’ explanation for why he wanted to make a film about the Paris Commune. La Commune and the director’s previous films are far from mere “agit-prop” essays, no matter the clear ethico-political investments and frequent anger exhibited on screen by many participants and the filmmaker himself. Rather, this cinema relentlessly insists on the messy, in-process nature of historical reality in the most immediate, participatory and hopeful sense. The result is less a finished work than a self-conscious, presentational record of such a process, which becomes ongoing as re-engaged by subsequent audiences. With distinct formal methods marked by a unique brand of reflexivity, the films extend way beyond mere self-consciousness to include a properly discursive and “democratic” address enabled by on-screen participants’ debating the contested topic at hand, including either by implication or by direct citing, its vital—although often disavowed—connection to present-day life. Rendered in such a way, history becomes an open, active, collaborative event on both sides of the screen, transcending the frame. So often central to this filmmaker’s cinema, these qualities reach an apogee with his last completed work.
Directed by Watkins, based on a loose treatment be wrote in collaboration with credited researcher Agathe Bluysen, and workshopped throughout a period of months by over 220 mainly non-professional actors before an improvisation-heavy shoot, La Commune (Paris, 1871) is a five hour and forty-five minute, intensely collaborative work. Shot in black and white, this loose re-imagining of the Paris Commune is entirely staged in a large warehouse at Montreuil in suburban Paris, a site reputedly once occupied by Georges Méliès’ studios and at the time of filming usually home to an experimental theatre company. This huge space contains a series of interconnected sets loosely standing in for select streets and building-rows circa 1871, occupied by working-class citizens in the 11th arrondissement and the town hall thereof, with a few other scenes set at Montmartre, an upper-class apartment, the Hôtel de Ville, Versailles, and Satory. However, the filmmakers go to no real effort in concealing the production’s studio-bound, indoor nature. On the contrary, throughout La Commune's running time the film emphasizes its warehouse location and the inherent theatricality of the whole enterprise. Despite most of the film theoretically being set outdoors, a large TV studio-style lighting rig is frequently visible perched above would-be normal ceiling height—the sets typically open straight onto the huge warehouse ceiling far above. The only other spaces we see are the “Versailles TV” newsreader’s studio set and a one-angle medium-close up of Thiers as he addresses the National Assembly, the latter never shown. (See the 8th and final image of the visual essay at the start of this article for an example.)
An absolutely crucial aspect of the film is that only a tiny proportion of its scenes are devoted to showing elected Commune leaders, who are only ever briefly seen having a meeting or giving short speeches to assembled crowds. Comparably more screen time is given to Thiers seen addressing his Assembly. For the vast majority of the film’s running time, we experience the Commune through the everyday people—supporters, detractors, and in-between—of the 11th arrondissement as they meet on the street and in bars, passionately discussing the fluid political developments, the Commune’s proclaimed ideals, and its internal and external problems. La Commune thereby foregoes, or undermines, a version of history as driven by famous figures. Names such as Louis Auguste Blanqui, Eugene Varlin, Louis Charles Delescluze, Élisabeth Dmitrieff, and Louise Michel are all mentioned at various points of the film, and actors portraying them are sometimes very briefly seen (or sometimes they are shown “for real” via photographs), but are almost entirely absent. Rather than such political protagonists or major intellectual figureheads—some combination of which feature in most scholarly historical accounts—the film only grants Thiers much notable attention (still small compared to everyday citizens). But throughout, he is only ever shown via the exact same medium close-ups, a heavily codified media-constructed image. This impression is strengthened further if we consider the possibility, sometimes suggested by the film, that images of Thiers comes to us via the government’s television network feed. This idea alerts the viewer to La Commune’s highly ambiguous nature when it comes to “whose” camera we are looking through at any given time—one of the warring “TV networks,” or “our” film.
In typical Watkins style, we are asked to imagine the forces of present-day propaganda at work via an anachronistic portrayal of mass-media technology. In this film/TV Commune, the conflict plays out partly between two television stations: the government’s own channel, introduced by its reporters as “National TV, Versailles” (later derisively called “Versailles TV” by Communards), and an outlet seeking to represent the Paris rebels upon its first broadcast 40 minutes into the film, known as “Commune TV.” While the latter has already been referred to in retrospect during the film’s highly reflexive very first scene set after both the Commune’s destruction and La Commune’s primary shoot (discussed below), once the central “story” is properly set in train, a scene 20 minutes into the film first calibrates what will be perhaps the most important formal dimension for the remainder of its running time. A reporter approaches government soldiers at their base for interviews prior to the ill-fated attempt to seize the National Guard’s cannon housed at Montmartre. First we hear from some of the officers, who confidently describe the impending mission to seize the 30-strong cannon so as to restore the government’s military and political authority over Paris. However, the interviews are intercut with footage of the same reporter speaking to younger soldiers standing grouped together nearby. Complaining of a lack of food and other material deprivations, they say that they “are not allowed to talk” and do not have the necessary military provisions to take the cannon. Describing the Montmartre orders as “totally vague,” the men state that while largely supporting the principle of disarming the Guard, they will not fire on civilians as ordered. When the film returns to the officers following a few seconds of black screen, we hear that they already suspect their troops will refuse such orders. “Most of them are young recruits,” one comments, “and don’t grasp the need for vigorous action against the red elements.” Five minutes later, following the failure to seize the Guard’s cannon due to government soldiers refusing to fire on the crowed of largely unarmed women, leading to a general insurrection in the city, the reporter enters Paris and speaks to 11th arrondissement locals, identifying himself as being from “National TV Versailles.”
Initially talking to working-class Parisians ecstatic at the insurrectionary turn of events, the reporter describes to Versailles TV’s viewers an atmosphere of uncertainly and concern. He moves on to hear from more upper-class and bourgeois figures, many of whom will become familiar in later scenes. These include a man who says he works for the U.S. ambassador, whereupon the reporter asks with concern how the United States views these events. The bourgeoisie express their worry and fervent opposition to the prevailing revolutionary mood, condemning its supporters. As with nearly all scenes across the film, within a group of people sharing a general—here conservative—position, some diversity is still apparent, such that we hear views ranging from aggressive demands for reprisals through to more moderate concern at the course of events. Soon, pro-revolutionary working-class voices cut in again, articulating what the Montmartre victory means for them. Decrying the reporter as working for “bourgeois TV,” then gesturing to two people in the background, one especially vocal woman cries: “We’ve had enough. We have journalists.” The latter are then asked by the woman to enable an alternative representation of events more reflective of the majority working-class population’s views and interests. Voicing support for the principle, the duo then point out they have no equipment, to which the above woman crucially replies: “That’s why we must do it together, in a different way!”
Initiated by an everyday arrondissement resident, at this moment is born both the idea of a “Commune TV” (she also provides its name) and its principles of more democratic expression whereby everyday people get to have their voices heard. “We have to stop censorship,” a man nearby comments in response to the idea. Less than ten minutes later, we see the same two journalists in front of the camera brandishing microphones for the first “Commune TV” broadcast, explaining they have somehow managed to scrounge sound equipment from storage facilities, but warning us this new media source will not be able to compete with the professionalism of Versailles TV: “We might have technical problems as we lack equipment.” Tellingly, however, a third figure is prominently caught on camera to the right of the frame during this introductory broadcast shot. (See the third image from the visual easy at the start of this article.) We soon learn he is a pro-Commune newspaper journalist critical of Commune TV’s techniques and approach to reporting. Importantly, no explanation is offered for the reporters presumably also having cameras, and—with the exception of a brief glimpse in the film’s first shot—such a camera is never seen on screen. (See the first image of the visual essay at the start of this article.) This elision sets in motion to the fullest degree the film’s most slippery, multi-layered reflexivity. It remains for the viewer to decide where, or whether, the cameras of the warring television networks are different to those of La Commune.
Near the end of the film we are told national troops have shut Commune TV down, and that one of its former journalists (who had previously quit, saying he could no longer stomach reporting on illiberal security laws without critical comment) “decides to use his radio microphone to cover events in the 11th district.” Once more, no explanation is given for how he is being filmed. What the viewer would previously have assumed to be Commune TV footage now appears to be the film’s, or vice versa. We might well ask, what of all the other scenes in which reporters don’t appear on screen? Following the early interview scenes, most of the subsequent “Versailles TV” footage is rather more instantly recognizable as such, thanks to twee theme intro music, gravely “objective” desk-bound reporters and professional presentation style, use of what was in 2000 still the standard television broadcast aspect ratio of 4/3 or 1.33:1 (La Commune itself is presented in 1.66:1, so the Versailles TV sequences are “pillar-boxed” with black bars on each side) and even some visual degradation of the broadcast signal.
Commune TV, meanwhile, features no studio-set reporting. Unlike the Versailles TV broadcasts, we see no shots where La Commune’s frame is laid directly over that of Commune TV in broadcast form. Apart form brief scenes where we see glimpse such images being screened on small television sets within the Commune, the latter’s footage (where we may venture such delineation) is presented just like that of the film itself—in 1.66:1 ratio, hand-held shots, and without degradation. The extensive Commune TV sequences are entirely comprised of cinéma vérité-type images—in the French sense of the term, stressing the involvement of the filmmakers in the “pro-filmic reality” as opposed to the more objectivity-seeking fly-on-the-wall North American “cinema direct” tradition. These “TV” scenes feature journalists avowedly excited by the socio-political experiment at hand as they report on its development and speak with ordinary citizens on the streets. In both cases, people on screen either consistently or intermittently look right at the camera.
Commune TV does not foreground a deconstruction of mainstream media conventions. In particular, reporters strive to retain some kind of objective, “professional” mode of address—which, as with much more mainstream media familiar to all readers and viewers, seeks in part to obscure the deeply invested way in which news is framed while also declining to enter into analysis and critique. The footage in which on-screen reporters speak straight into the camera and interview people (often also looking right at us), which comprises all of Commune TV’s and the minority of Versailles TV’s footage (the non-studio-bound material, the latter presented as masked for 4/3 broadcast), is presented as seemingly “live”. However, such a contrast is thrown very much into doubt by the fact that we also see sequences throughout the film showing both networks’ footage as screened on television sets within the Commune—in the case of Commune TV in public, and Versailles TV in the private space of a representative bourgeois apartment. (In the rare case that someone is caught watching Versailles TV by a Communard, the former are queried as to their reason for watching reactionary, anti-Commune media.) Glimpsed as a small square frame within La Commune’s own modest rectangular one, in these scenes we finally get a sense of what Commune TV images look like in 4/3 transmission (unlike in the case of Versailles TV broadcasts, the film never shows us this incarnation up close). In one example, people watch Commune TV reporters describing the declaration of the Commune as broadcast on a television set, a transmission-formatted version of footage we saw fifteen minutes earlier “as it happened.” Suggesting the existence of unseen post-production (and therefore editing) facilities, these transmission snippets also yet further undermine—especially for the Commune TV footage, being closest to La Commune’s own aesthetic form—the very status and temporal placement of the film’s “pro filmic reality.” Such frame-within-a-frame, “mise en abyme” sequences also strongly suggest the notion of the Commune becoming very quickly a mediated “virtual” event with no real center.
Most obviously via the presence of on-screen microphones, occasionally television sets, and direct address to camera ascribable to the “TV” aspect of this re-imagined Commune, the film’s overt reflexivity is even more explicitly foregrounded by La Commune’s very first images. Following extensive white-on-black text informing the viewer about the historical context we are about to explore, an unsteady hand-held travelling shot, accompanied by the camera operator’s loud footsteps, moves through what looks like a half-built or half-demolished interior set, starting with a composition featuring materials that could be related to the film (their on-screen or off-screen use is unclear), the theatre troupe that usually occupies the space, or neither. Our camera then moves through a door and into a large sub-divided warehouse space, seemingly in search of filmmaking activity. As the camera veers right we can briefly make out Peter Watkins and a small crew, with one technician looking directly at us, seen from behind and then to the left as the image continues its hand-held forward movement. (A still from this including Watkins, his crew, Commune TV actors, and various filmmaking materials, is viewable at the start of this article’s introductory ‘Visual Essay on Page 1.) In his only appearance on screen throughout the film, the director is seen here sitting behind a camera monitor before ‘our’ camera arrives at its apparent destination directly in front of a woman and a man dressed in roughly period-specific circa-1871 clothes. The film’s sets, a prominent electrical cord, and high-mounted lighting rig are clearly visible behind Watkins, the crew, and the actors.
Looking straight at the audience, the actors proceed to introduce themselves both by their own name and that of the characters they play, informing us that the massacre ending the Commune’s short life has just occurred. The man says:
His female colleague then introduces herself and her character, explaining she plays a “journalist for the Commune TV.” Adding an extra layer of “auto-critique” to the film’s already highly reflexive nature, she foregrounds one of its major themes:
Any notion that this epic film will recreate revolutionary history by seeking any kind of “suspension of disbelief” is from the very start completely undermined in its extremely self-conscious and entirely theatrical or abstract presentation. Introduced in this way and then comprising a single massive “flashback,” such a reflexive resurrection works to produce revolutionary history and space anew, now in the form of a virtual invocation and challenge.
Explaining the warehouse space’s usual function as home to a theatre troupe, the man then says:
The camera resumes its hand-held walk, now moving beyond the human figures deeper into the set, with the lighting rig still visible at the top of the frame, which now becomes devoid of human presence, including a very large empty space perhaps used to film the military scenes or a result of some sets having been already taken down. (See the second image of the visual essay at the start of this article.) The male journalist continues to speak over images showing one of many passageways and rooms filled with furniture, debris, and weapons that we now see in the middle section of the film’s first long tracking shot, which now features tighter framing but still clearly shows the warehouse ceiling and light source:
In due course, as the same shot continues to track through the set, showing an array of interconnected walls, furniture, and props. After a few seconds we hear the advertised audio-delivered “text” (which may or may not have been recorded “a few months later’) presumably spoken by the female Commune TV reporter, now using the present tense but referring not to the time of the film’s production but to that of the Commune’s history immediately following its end:
We are told that these events happened “yesterday evening.” On screen we see a chair and table filled with disheveled paperwork, but no officer or accused Communards, the framing now tighter but with prominent artificial lighting streaming in from above the ceiling-less walls of the set. We hear more descriptions by both Commune TV reporters, speaking of an already spectral and theatrical Commune devoid for now of any human presence. The audience is then finally addressed by the female journalist over more footage of the eerily quiet space (the only sound being the camera operator’s footsteps and off-screen narrators) where we have just been informed thousands of people were killed the previous evening:
The film’s first post-text shot has now continued unbroken for over five minutes. After a few more seconds an elderly male voice starts speaking off camera, with the present tense now seeming to be sometime shortly before the Commune’s advent. He describes the 11th arrondissement of Paris, within which he and his family of five live, as “not an easy place to live.” With many children living on the street, he notes that his family “is not the most miserable in this society,” and concludes his discussion of abject inequality with apposite forthrightness: “We have to change it one day.” At this moment, the travelling shot finally concludes after six minutes on a downward-tilted image showing the point where a wider passageway gives way to a much smaller alley, with a large bucket and drain-cover prominently placed on the ground—a symbolically charged, tantalizing but foreboding sight in light of the old man’s narration and the story we are about to see played out.
Following the film’s very first cut since its introductory text, we see a small family—the viewer may assume it is the same one just described, with the old male narrator now perhaps appearing silent on screen with his family (although we only see three people here)—sitting directly facing the camera, dressed in period clothes. The image is held in silence for a few seconds before they eventually begin to speak. The film’s first seven minutes variously post-date both the Paris Commune and also, we are lead to believe, La Commune’s primary shoot. Upon this first moving-image cut, the film’s mammoth but unstable central flashback now begins at a point just before the Commune’s advent. Any lingering notions the viewer may have of the “past” in regard to both history and filmmaking are thereby from the start undermined.
When it comes to important formal patterns across the film, while some scenes do feature straight cuts between discernable shots, Watkins’ more typical approach is for edits to be replaced by a few seconds of black screen sometimes followed by white-on-black text. Alternatively, what would be longer shots are fragmented by such “interruptions.” From the film’s very first moments, following its credits, on-screen text informs the viewer of crucial historical events leading up to the Commune and occurring during its brief life. Increasingly these text interludes throughout the film are just as likely to provide commentary on events, often including retrospective remarks from the present day that offer multiple comparisons with 1871, crucial intervening events, and those of the late 1990s. A handful of these text screens also concern details of the film’s own production techniques, drawing our attention to how it was made and Watkins’ preferred style. Black screens can lead to the arrival of text, a new shot or scene, or a continuation of the previous one. Irrespective of what follows, such visual “gaps” serve as giant reflexive markers—that there has been a “cut” within a shot, between two, or that on-screen text will further draw us out of the immediate drama. Even where two shots are edited together, what would normally be experienced as a simple enough cut is effectively highlighted to indicate the presence and active decision-making of the filmmakers, who constantly threaten to intervene via the constant threat of black and text screen interruption.
The regular blank few seconds, in particular, also have the effect of giving viewers a little time to reflect on the implications of such usually “hidden” editing and other filmmaking procedures. In addition, we are given time to think about the on-screen discussions about the Commune’s purpose, character, and fate that we have been watching. Meanwhile, the very fact of the white-on-black text screens themselves regularly reminds us of the heavily narrated nature of this film and its highly constructed method of historical telling. The overt reflexivity of such text draws attention to the act of filming per se. Sometimes the text contains “flash forwards,” telling the viewer what will become of a character or group on screen. Other occasional stylistic flourishes include the gradually increasing but still fairly spare use of freeze-frames at the end of scenes before another cut to black. There is also some limited use of sound-image juxtaposition. One notable example occurs when Versailles TV interviews with government troops at Satory continue in audio form over images of Communards dancing in Paris. We continue to hear government army officers dismiss the people on screen as a criminal rabble before the image track eventually returns to Satory.
For the above and other reasons, the film’s overall stylistic character remains extremely presentational—in sharp distinction to a more “transparent” representational form. Initially foregrounded by its single, hermetic, “theatrical” space, this reflexive presentational style extends further in the filmmaking strategies Watkins and his team employ. Such spatial emphasis and allied filmic approaches are most obviously seen in concert through what is for La Commune’s first few minutes (following its introductory text) a consistently straight-to-camera delivery by the Commune TV journalists, then the small families who also look exclusively front-on at the viewer for some time, before slowly speaking about their everyday lives before and during the Commune all the while continuing to look right at the camera, with the highly artificial-looking sets given striking prominence. Then, after setting up a formal pattern comprising on-screen text, voice-over narration, and quiet direct address, 16 minutes into the film we get its first more “conventionally” staged action scene, in which the on-screen figures no longer primarily look right at the viewer. But even in this scene, showing a National Guard drill (a rather farcical sight, with the captain trying to make new members observe military discipline and hierarchy), and in many others across La Commune where actors “perform” and interact with each other in more dramatic scenarios, people continue to intermittently look into the camera before returning their gaze to the loosely rendered “diegetic” reality in which they are taking part. For a film like this, “real” reality must encapsulate the increasingly central role of audiovisual media itself—La Commune’s own production, its participants’ experience thereof, and the resulting film’s subsequent reception by viewers. This necessitates a thorough reflexivity that, for Watkins, actually reduces distance rather than enforcing any kind of “alienation effect.”
In concert with the brief, peripheral and often tentative-looking glances to camera (different from the extended front-on gaze seen in the first quarter hour), adding another crucial reflexive aspect to the film’s otherwise comparatively conventional scenes, these more dramatic sequences also pay no heed to traditional feature-film grammar. The hand-held camera and Watkins’ editing regime consistently present the warehouse set as a 360-degree space. With the first shot of the National Guard scene described above showing the new recruits from their right as they look screen right in the presumptive direction of the captain as he speaks, when the film cuts to show the latter finally asserting his authority (by means of articulating the political situation and the national government’s military threats), the edit crosses what many formal analysts of commercial narrative cinema call the “180-degree line” by presenting him also looking right in the direction of his men, who are now off screen. Left-right directionality has been somewhat muddied by the previous moving shot, largely taken from the men’s right but sometimes getting close to front-on. Five minutes later, the film’s mixture of explicitly reflexive and comparably dramatic (if still decidedly non-representational) styles are properly fused—or one could say “calibrated,” preparing us for many similar scenes across the remaining over-five hours—when the audience first sees what we soon learn is a Versailles TV journalist walking up to national government soldiers and brandishing a circa-1999 microphone to ask questions (as described above).
In addition to the anachronistic portrayal of audiovisual media—television, not to mention the “film” itself—in rendering La Commune’s 1871 setting, with extensive use of direct address for both whole scenes and furtive looks-to-camera, the film’s fundamental presentational form is most strongly reinforced throughout by the prominent use of this single, highly theatrical space, variously subdivided to suggest different buildings, rooms, and exteriors without for a moment convincing the viewer we are anywhere other than in the interior of a large warehouse at the very end of the Twentieth Century. In La Commune’s first half hour, most of its reflexive spatial, filmmaking, and performative elements are set in motion, starting to combine. As this epic production unfolds, these elements will continue to develop and cross-pollinate with escalating complexity and significance, especially when it comes to the question so rigorously thereby explored and voiced by this film: how to re-imagine, render, essay, and “produce” revolutionary history on screen.