The energy unleashed by the crucial role played by women at Montmartre provides a crucial narrative through-line for the film as seen in many Commune TV interviews with different women detailing their arguments about education, labour, and political claims both within and helping bring about the new Commune, before culminating in the story of the Women’s Union.
Local members of the Women’s Union arrive at the 11th arrondissement town hall to confirm the location of their meeting room as authorized by the Commune’s Central Committee, only to find local administrators have no idea of the Union or its needs and little interest in the women’s cause.
The first meeting of the 11th arrondissement division of the Women’s Union begins with what in this film is a relatively wide shot – although still clearly very constricted – before moving in to focus on individual speakers and sub-groups, starting with the local organizer as she introduces the Union’s purpose.
In a more relaxed discussion later in the film, with the present tense seems unambiguously to be 1999, possibly at the end of La Commune’s primary shoot, actors from the Women’s Union scenes discuss their experience of the film and what role it could play upon distribution.
In another discussion featuring a 1999 present tense, one of many in the film featuring a bar setting, actors compare present-day life to that of the 19th Century, pointing out both the vast differences and disturbing continuities of inequality, and asking whether people today are capable of revolt in light of increased material comfort and the diversion of a relatively ubiquitous and atomizing entertainment culture, notably television.
As soldiers drag Communards from hiding places in the final stages of semaine sanglante, anti-Commune upper-class characters shout for their deaths.
The two Commune TV reporters and the newspaper journalist debate how best to cover the Commune, with the former emphasising the need for total support and defending their technique of interviewing everyday people, making sure they ‘allow’ conservative bourgeois characters to speak, while the latter (sitting in the middle) stresses the importance of analysis and critique, adding that he admires the TV interviews but feels they are too short.
Following a tense report in which the male Commune TV journalist clearly expresses his frustration with the increasingly secretive behaviour of the Commune’s Central Committee, his counterpart interjects, asking to ‘cut’.
A young National Guard recruit discusses the then-recent redesign of Paris by Haussmann, ushering in the glamorous avenues featuring expensive boutiques later beloved of tourists, commenting that such urban transformation emphasised and further exaggerated the divisions between the bourgeois and upper-classes on the one hand and the majority population on the other.
As the National Guard leave for what will turn out to be its disastrous march on Versailles, the Commune TV reporters approach Polish soldiers quietly looking on, the men explaining they are in Paris with the hope of playing a role in revolutionary opportunity represented by the Commune as part of a larger Europe-wide struggle to overthrow the old political and religious order.
Interviewing a Versailles TV reporter who has been ‘undercover’ in the 11th arrondissement, the studio host asks about the prominent role played by ‘foreigners’ in the Commune, making fun of the prominent Polish names, the Russian Dmitrieff (‘sent my Karl Marx from God knows where’), and the fact that there are even ‘Arabs in the Guard’.
In one of the cramped bar scenes throughout the film, a group of Communards are told of the copious repressions and atrocities carried out by French forces in the Algerian colony.
One of the Polish soldiers asks to speak in Polish in his Commune TV interview, while a comrade to his immediate left translates what he says into French.
In comments that cast both back and forward through history, the increased threat of centralized power is discussed by a group of Guardsmen, comments – as another scene addressing this issue nearby makes plain – that can refer to both politics and the media in the modern context.
Spurred on by their role at Montmartre, there is a move by the women to join the Nation Guard in some capacity, to help the march on Versailles, an idea greeted as ridiculous by Guardsmen except one voice offering general support.
Three quarters into the film, we return again to the dressmaker and wash-house business where we see the women back at work albeit at reduced wages, the exquisite irony of which is pointed out by one of them when she describes a ‘topsy-turvy’ reality in which they are either unemployed or get paid less than usual under the pro-worker, left-wing Commune.
Far from limited to its director’s particular style or taste, La Commune’s troublesome but necessary combination of political investment and multi-tired reflexive form is directly responsive to modern history itself, recalling one of Lefebvre’s central points. Always a Marxist with a keen sense of the cultural avant garde (as with Adorno’s seeking to “update” Marx when it comes to both the ramifications of consumer culture and also radical innovations in the arts), Lefebvre had close, intense relations with both the Situationists and earlier the Surrealists, before falling out with and critiquing each. For art to retain historical responsibility, especially if seeking any kind of revolutionary participation, space itself can no longer be represented within artworks as “whole,” irrespective of how desperately we may wish it were so in the interests of efficaciously fostering political change.
In a key passage from The Production of Space, Lefebvre writes:
Made on the now-lengthy other side of such a divide nearly a century later, La Commune partakes of a cinematic tradition often loosely called “political modernism,” starting in earnest with 1920s Soviet cinema’s fusion of revolutionary materialism, formal-aesthetic innovation, and resulting demands on and for an active viewer. Such a breakdown of transparency and representational claims as checked off by Lefebvre, exploding across the arts in the 20th Century’s early decades is, for a figure like Watkins, essential to maintain for the simple reason of historical responsibility, resisting the ongoing pull—including by allegedly progressive political voices—of conservative formal dictates so prevalent in much cinema, fiction and documentary alike, caused or at least strongly amplified by the dictates of the market.
Speaking in The Universal Clock, Geoff Bowie’s 2001 documentary about La Commune and its director, actor-participant Sara Louis comments on the production and ultimate form of Watkins’ film:
Watkins has characterized and criticized many audiovisual works’ institutional-political as well as formal-artistic regressions and complicities as constituting what he calls the “Monoform.” The filmmaker uses this phrase to signify the homogenized approach to form and aesthetics of finished works enforced at all levels of production and exhibition, with—contradicting the usual industry-derived justifications, frequently repeated by compliant critics and commentators—scant regard for viewer involvement and agency. Speaking in Bowie’s film, Watkins contextualizes the “Monoform” as follows:
As in much of Watkins’ cinema, La Commune concurrently offers and strives to generate a sustained critique of mainstream audiovisual form—especially as seen in many documentaries through their streamlined, homogenized tendency, most connected to the powerful Discovery Channel (the operations of which are laid out and critiqued by Bowie and others in The Universal Clock)—while at the same time seeking out alternative methods of engaging with history.
La Commune consistently criticizes familiar documentary and television “Monoform” techniques as differently enacted by both Versailles and Commune TV; in this way, to use U.S. parlance, we can see them as “conservative” and “liberal” variants of media conventions. With the exception of Versailles TV’s studio-bound presentation, appropriately featuring a tripod-mounted camera, the rest of the “TV” and our own “film” sequences—where we may venture such distinctions—are shot with a very noticeable hand-held camera, often utilizing long takes of up to 10 minutes. The latter tendency is very much in keeping with Watkins’ oft-stated belief that audiences need more time to interact with what they see and hear, so that a film or TV program can begin to undermine the “Monoform” and its prescriptive viewer relations. But while La Commune clearly doesn’t conform to familiar mainstream formal conventions (surely explaining in large part its initial exhibition problems), neither does it ultimately fit within the also familiar, if less mainstream, category of a long take-dominant cinema that frequently seems to invest hopefully radical charge initiated by a temporally-enabled resistance to our now long-rampant capitalist modernity’s inherent speed. Despite the long take’s historical association with an often (although not always) politically engaged realist cinema, or a more ornamental and sometimes “mystical” kind of global art cinema, in this film what could be very lengthy shots are frequently interrupted by the cuts to black, as I have described. La Commune also features regular, often rather fragmentary brief shots—which, as with those on either side of the few seconds’ black or text screens, again may or may not be continuations of previous scenes or precursors of others.
The cross-pollination of La Commune’s multiple reflexive audiovisual elements frequently plays out on screen for the viewer as a series of slippages. As the hours roll by, the viewer senses an increasing confusion of roles and identities both in regards to characters or types and the actors playing them, and the different media texts involved. Despite the large numbers of on-screen speaking parts, some of these figures do actually “develop” throughout, often voicing different views and analyses of events as they unfold. The early scene showing soldiers being ordered to fire on the Montmartre crowd as the national forces try to seize the National Guard cannon, only to be dissuaded by the presence of unarmed female civilians, is both presented as a key moment in the early life of the Commune and strikingly staged. The military commander’s failure is filmed in a highly theatrical yet non-dramatic way. After giving the women and National Guardsmen who have rushed to the scene “two warnings,” he simply gives up. Realizing the Parisians seem to have the upper hand and perhaps also that the soldiers will refuse to fire (as guessed already by officers in the previous Versailles TV interviews), the commander quickly retreats by walking backwards as if off a stage “into the wings.” This highly functional gesture contrasts starkly with what follows. Less than a few seconds later, sensing their opportunity, the women rush the government troops to embrace them after one of the latter upends his rifle. Effectively heralding the mixed political experiment to come, if not its longevity, one of the women triumphantly shouts: “Long Live socialism! Long live the Republic!”
The euphoria resulting from the victorious Montmartre defense of the cannon, particularly among women on screen, is palpable. In the above highly theatricalized scene within an already very theatrical film, after running towards the soldiers and cheering, the women themselves—whether we see them as 1871 characters or 1999 actors—seem to “feel” the transformative power they have enacted, forging in the process a more developed comprehension, both properly emotional and rational, of the possibility and potential meaning of collective action as they have just experienced it. The Montmartre victory inspires in the women a strongly proclaimed investment in the Commune and its fate, and their demands for representation within—which will be seen across many subsequent scenes. A series of Commune TV interviews soon after the Commune’s proclamation feature groups of women ranging from two unemployed teachers who advocate for free state-run secular schools so that girls can at least be properly educated, to women emphasizing their distinct labor rights, while others emphasize the bigger picture by stressing the importance of being able to vote in elections and arguing that the Commune’s Central Committee should properly recognize women’s vital role in enabling its existence, thanks in part to the Montmartre victory. One woman exclaims:
Staring down the camera, she concludes: “We’re the heart of this revolution!”
In addition to women’s prominence throughout the film, the story of their distinct claims and arguments when it comes to political representation is most clearly followed through with the development of the Women’s Union, a story presented as crucial to the democratic and moral worth of this revolutionary experiment—both that of the Commune and La Commune. The first announcement of the Paris Commune Women’s Union under the general leadership of Élisabeth Dmitrieff makes it clear that rather than recounting a heroic tale of Dmitrieff’s efforts, in keeping with the film’s focus on everyday citizens’ experience we will follow the development of the more modest on-the-ground activities of its 11th arrondissement division. After the triumphant initial announcement of the Union’s inauguration half way through the film, the next scene focuses on the rather more pragmatic problem of finding an appropriate meeting space in the local town hall, despite having prior authorization. The officers at the 11th arrondissement town hall either seem to know nothing of the Women’s Union or show little interest in facilitating its local activities. This search marks both the struggle of nascent organized feminism within the everyday life of this self-proclaimed progressive political environment and is symbolic of the Commune’s own travails in claiming, or “reappropriating,” the city itself for revolutionary purpose.
Finally provided with a cramped, dishevelled closet-like room nowhere near big enough to house what they say will be “hundreds of women,” the 11th arrondissement division of the Women’s Union commences its discussions. Despite the insufficient space, even now the women have not been successful in finding a space of their own. At their meeting local men line the walls, and seem unable to resist speaking. The men’s behavior hovers ambiguously between refusing to allow such an enterprise, solidarity with the cause, or wanting to fold it back into the Commune’s larger class-based agenda (thereby erasing “gender”). Once again, the ambiguous interest some men show in getting involved in what is ostensibly a feminist political initiative plays out a tension that will be very familiar to those with experience of subsequent left-wing activist and progressive party-political activities, which often feature arguments around the question of women-only internal groups. Notably, the viewer is given audiovisual access to these discussions seemingly without the presence of Commune TV journalists. Compared to the latter’s brief interview snippets, the Women’s Union scenes feature more sustained conversation and debate, occasionally broken up by black and text screens, starting with a relatively wide but still clearly cramped shot before moving in to focus on individual speakers and sub-groups.
By way of introduction to the first meeting, the local Women’s Union organizer begins by announcing its ambitions:
On the one hand, these ideas all chime perfectly with central Commune principles, yet the fact of the Union’s focus on women’s unique experience, and its spearheading of such crucial concepts as worker cooperatives, suggests the task will be even tougher in the context of what is still an almost totally male-dominated political climate. Temporarily interrupting the lengthy meeting scene, on-screen text suggests the work of the Women’s Union remains to be completed 128 years later. Later in the film, another lengthy sequence features many of the same women now sitting in a less cramped space, seemingly speaking more directly for the camera as if commenting on their experiences for it, in a relaxed fashion describing what it was like to make La Commune. Tellingly, one woman asks about the distribution of the film. Another, perhaps optimistically, says the idea of the film attaining commercial distribution is heartening, before finishing with an apposite stress on this experience as one that transcends the frame and notions of a finished product:
The consistent slippage between actor and role remains from the very start of the film one of its central techniques driving this revolutionary film-history’s palimpsestic mode of representation. In using the very same gesture as seeking to foster local and broader communal action, as described above, this ambiguity stresses on both historical levels (1871 and 1999) the basic principle of the human subject’s reclaiming her own body, mind, and emotional life, as well as her immediate environment for the purposes of work, rest, and pleasure, away from the contemporary “owners”: men, capital, and the state. As Lefebvre argues in The Production of Space,
Much of La Commune can be seen as playing out such fundamental, incredibly challenging gestures of reappropriation within different social contexts.
The same ambiguity and ethical question is repeated on the topic of audiovisual textuality itself, as we are never quite sure whether a sound-image is being recorded by “our” film’s camera, a “TV” network’s, or we are watching one of the latter’s broadcasts. Of the audiovisual text itself, the viewer is asked the same question as posited above in relation to the body: Can a film be reclaimed from its traditional enablers, owners, and definers as dictated by the economic, production, and ideological imperatives of the “Monoform,” but also indeed by a singular author such as Watkins himself? On both levels, human and cinematic, this is history as very much “living” performance and process, whereby different layers of the performative and filmic text, and history itself as generated thereby, emerge and merge at different moments. The film collapses linearity in a process that is both confusing and highly informative.
Such an address is both necessarily problematic and enormously generative, so that the notion of revolution emerges as both more relevant than ever while also forever mired in contradiction, myth, and perhaps impossibility. We struggle to really know what it might be beyond human and media performance. One of the film’s multiple discussions held in a small bar sees actors talking about what it has meant to participate in the film and to what extent the Commune resonates with their present-day situation, comparing inequality today to that of the 19th Century and asking whether people are prepared to revolt in a world defined by increased material comfort combined with a ubiquitous and frequently atomizing entertainment culture, notably television. Then an on-screen text screen, quoted in full at the start of this article, posits that what the people in this film experienced and express is exactly that which dominant “Monoform” media typically shuns or is “afraid of… to see the man in the little rectangle replaced by a multitude of people, the public.”
Although Watkins’ and the film’s general political allegiances remain clear enough throughout, the critique of mainstream media on screen is not simplistically “partisan” but rather more pluralist. In a late scene, an “expert” commentator suggests the Versailles TV news presenter refrain from showing semaine sanglante footage as planned, arguing that to screen such images would risk rewarding “base instincts of the viewer.” (The expert is played by a real-life Royalist historian, whom we see in The Universal Clock being told by Watkins to “speak your own mind” on the subject of the Commune.) And indeed La Commune’s viewers do not get to see any such “recreations.” Offering a reason one could easily imagine Watkins himself voicing in one of his “Monoform” critiques (despite apparently oppositional politics, and likely using less elitist language), the TV commentator concludes:
While the production budget was likely insufficient for any spectacular action scenes to be shot, Watkins surely agrees with the commentator on this basic point.
We witness Communards lined up against a wall presumably waiting for news of their execution, archive photographs of cadavers, and some brief high-contrast imagery of bodies piled up. The viewer also sees Versailles soldiers raise their guns in unison and hear shots ring out, but any falling bodies remain out of frame. We see no live-action recreations of individual or mass murder. The closest to violent action sequences are brief shots of soldiers dragging people from their hiding places into the street to face ad-hoc tribunals as anti-Commune crowds shout for their deaths. Appearing directly following the interview with the Royalist historian, it is unclear whether these images comprise select footage screened on Versailles TV or whether they are part of “our” film. The footage is also soon both intercut and combined with audio and occasional shots of Thiers announcing the Commune’s end. While Watkins retains a characteristic refusal to show actual violence, the above action-style shots have something of an “excuse” if we see them as constituting Versailles TV material.
The film seems ultimately less interested in pillorying Versailles TV than closely assessing the ramifications of Commune TV’s uncritical relation to the Commune’s more questionable developments and its own non-studio-bound yet non-self-conscious “Monoform” iteration. La Commune’s own media commentary thereby clearly operates outside a very narrow—and to contemporary viewers, highly familiar—liberal/ conservative dichotomy, in fact reserving its most urgent critique for notionally “progressive” media. This comes to a head as the Commune Central Committee enacts increasingly draconian measures in the interests of “security,” including escalating censorship decrees. But this tension between the idealism of the Commune’s initial declaration and actions carried out by elected representatives in its “defense,” both internal and external, is present from very early on. “Despite the enthusiasm sparked by the election, the fear of centralized power is in the air,” a text screen informs us shortly after the Commune’s inaugural elections, with the Committee of Public Safety recalling legislation enacted in 1779 “as an infamous instrument of political terror. To talk of this Committee in 1871 revives sinister memories.” We do not get such blunt commentary from the Commune TV journalists. Their unseen bosses, further text tells us, subsequently make an editorial decision not to mention an article by a prominent left-wing newspaper about the new law and increasingly draconian aspects of this Committee, “for fear of negative reactions.”
Immediately following this we see some crucial fly-on-the-wall style footage in which no one looks into the camera, showing an argument between the Commune TV reporters and the author of the above-mentioned article. The latter—the same man we initially saw awkwardly standing alongside the Commune TV reporters in their very first broadcast—argues that the pair should adopt a more analytical and critical attitude toward unfolding events. “It’s also true that your interviews are very interesting,” he says, “since people have things to say.” But, sitting between them, the newspaper journalist adds a crucial qualifier reminiscent of Watkins’ own complaints about “Monoform” media: “But it's too short, you've got to give them more time.” The female TV reporter then offers a revealing retort familiar from a thousand mainstream media spokespeople and apologists: “But you need to have rhythm to win people's attention on television. It has to be fast paced like that for people. If we have debates go on forever, they'll just turn off the TV.”
As the film develops, it returns repeatedly to the topic of increasing media censorship. At one point, the male Commune TV journalist reports:
His female counterpart explains with even more striking propagandistic effect:
They both then exhibit some possible unease with such illiberal developments while avoiding having to voice explicit critique themselves, by quoting pro-Commune newspapers that openly condemn the banning and argue the Commune's ideas should be strong enough to withstand both internal and external opposition. “On the pretext of war,” on-screen text then more frankly notes, “censorship will shut down not only 30 ‘reactionary’ newspapers, but also critical pro-Commune newspapers.”
Around four hours into La Commune, the propaganda role of Commune TV comes under growing strain when the journalists report from outside the Hôtel de Ville about the Central Committee’s increasing political infighting. The male journalist shows clear frustration at the endless restructuring and committee forming, and the constant specter of a military government with the ongoing question of the National Guard’s political role. Recounting the move towards centralized control of the Commune by the Jacobin faction, each reporter uses different expressions to describe the turn of events, now openly interrupting each other. Introducing the news that a Committee of Public Safety has been formed, the female journalist calls it a “historic event,” while her colleague instead laments: “The moment is very grave.” Of the debate over whether to establish a five-man Executive to oversee the internal and external crises engulfing the Commune, he speaks with clearly escalating anger: “The Commune members discussed at length whether or not to publish the minutes of these divisive sessions. Will we ever be allowed to see them?” Clearly annoyed, his colleague interjects by flapping her hand at the camera and insisting: “All right. Cut!” The camera, be it Commune TV’s or La Commune’s, does not “cut,” but the reporter’s instruction, referring to either the camera operator or the producer about later editing of the footage for transmission, makes it clear that this is likely not a live broadcast. Turning to him, she cries: “What's the matter? You're at it again?... Giving negative information isn’t your job.” At the end of their argument, following the customary few seconds of black screen we read: “The next day, the reporter resigns, saying that this Committee betrays Commune principles, and that he can no longer act non-critically in his work.”
Trans-historical, multi-vocal discourse
Beyond the specifics of its filmmaker and the historical event referenced on screen, La Commune insists on the lived nature of historical reality in the most immediate, performative, and reflexive sense. There is no simple production of revolutionary space, and no simple textual-artistic articulation thereof. Far from being of one mind about the Commune’s purpose, outcome, worth, and what can be learnt from it today, participants in the filmmaking process are visibly engaged in being asked to bring, and develop, their own opinions to the roles and scenarios on screen. This results in the rather messy, heteroglossia-style voicing of debate about a contested history in its vital, although often disavowed, connection to contemporary life and global problems. These are addressed implicitly or explicitly through a reflexive and avowedly non-realist theatricality on the intimately connected levels of human performance and audiovisual form.
More urgently than the question of revolution itself and lingering, mythic left-wing investments therein, the Commune has enjoyed some renewed sense of relevance in light of recent global events particularly due to the means by which the Communards attempted their revolution. They were, to use Lefebvre’s terms, “reappropriating” and “reclaiming” urban space with a view to its “production” anew. If the film’s own analogous fate in Watkins’ account (summarized in footnote 61 above) is anything to go by—logical enough, perhaps, in light of the Commune’s unclaimed status within official French history and politics—La Commune at the very least “updates” a story not usually heard outside radical circles. More precisely, this particular histoire (the French word invoking both “story” and “history” is very much appropriate here) is delivered via its production method and final cinematic form. The democratic, “workshop” style of the film’s manufacture, its variously reflexive elements, and long final running time, all effectively preclude any commercial release in cinemas (outside festival screenings). The film connects the immediate, fundamental concerns of the Commune very clearly to today’s unresolved global problems of increasingly gross socioeconomic inequality, most prominently apparent in our major cities—then as now.
During the quiet section starting seven minutes into the film featuring small groups speaking straight into the camera (with no “TV” reporters yet in sight), each describing their experiences of both the siege and poverty more broadly, a National Guard recruit explains that the official French Revolution of 1789 was “a bourgeois revolution,” changing nothing for working class families like his. More “recently”, he continues, harsh socioeconomic divisions have became much clearer with the just-completed rebuilding of central Paris (1853-70) by Georges-Eugène Haussmann, resulting in the glamorous avenues and shopping arcades enjoyed by tourists to this day. The young Guardsman concludes:
If it had been more widely released and reviewed in 2000, La Commune’s scenario, concerns, and particularly the lengthy on-camera discussions of the West’s ongoing consumerist stranglehold, would have been very much in tune with the then very active (and misnamed) “anti-globalization” activism and a new wave of protests around consumerism in North America, Europe and elsewhere. Watched fifteen years later, the film seems no less contemporary in light of the last few years’ explicit critiques of spiralling inequality, shouted across big cities’ central squares or via diverse online media dialogues, of state-enforced capitalism’s ever more extreme incarnation.
The essential problems and expression of basic ethical disgust at the status quo, leading to radical and far-reaching alternative ideas argued over throughout the film by ordinary citizens—pertaining both to 1871 and 1999—are far from completely removed from those we have seen expressed on the streets of major cities since late 2010 in the Middle East (largely excepting Israel), responding to many decades’ rule by usually Washington-backed dictators. The following year saw protests in much of the West, spurred on by the harsh effects of state responses to the 2008 global financial crisis in the form of the most hypocritical “austerity” characterized by radical cuts to spending on public services combined with massive government handouts to the very same financial institutions that caused the crisis in the first place, as discussed in Part I of this article. While basic average living standards in the West have increased in the 145 years since the Paris Commune, inequality has long been worsening once again across the developed world since the gradual dismantling during the 1970s and early 80s in the USA, UK and many other Western countries (to varying degrees) of the post-WW2 “mixed economy” or “Keynesian” model to be replaced by a much more radical version of state-enabled market capitalism. The result is that the sharp socioeconomic disparity of the 19th Century—which our contemporary “neoliberal” ideologues seem to hark back to—that motivated the Communards’ revolutionary efforts (in concert with anger at the national government’s capitulation to imperial German control at the Franco-Prussian War’s conclusion) is now truly global and thoroughly networked in scope thanks to the Internet. While basic living standards may have increased overall, with the post-WW2 welfare state today increasingly underfunded or abandoned (or in the case of the United States, never really born), socioeconomic inequality has not only drastically increased once again over recent decades. On-screen text from the film details how it is, in fact, far worse than in 1871.
In addition to class disparity, even the simple demographics of today’s cities and those of Paris during the Commune are not so different as one might assume, with an active presence in the latter of guest workers from the French provinces, the newly acquired African colonies, and other European countries. The Commune was home to about one hundred thousand immigrant workers and political refugees, the largest numbers being from Italy and Poland. Importantly, many came to Paris after being involved in uprisings elsewhere that either met with a bloody end or, as in the case of Italy’s just-completed Risorgimento, lead to another bourgeois-nationalist outcome, with the hope of helping ignite a new internationally-minded local and national-based revolutionary wave to once more try and overthrow Europe’s established political, social, economic, and religious order. The film gives explicit expression to this motivation and story, particularly in the form of lengthy Commune TV interviews with Polish soldiers observing the doomed march on Versailles by the National Guard, who later go on to take leadership roles in the organization, explaining how they have come to be in Paris after failed revolutionary activity in Poland and Siberian exile.
Meanwhile, with a great many of the Commune’s chief architects, Guard commanders, and regular citizens and supporters not being French nationals, Versailles TV reporters play up the “foreign” element. At one point the familiar studio host makes fun of what he calls “ridiculous” Polish-sounding names repeatedly heard in Paris, following which his colleague—the reporter we met earlier, who has since been “undercover” in the 11th arrondissement, until being unmasked by angry Communards—complains: “At every meeting, in all the small groups, foreigners all voted, that's all I can say.” In a later transmission, the same two figures discuss the influence of Dmitrieff, describing her as “a Russian aristocrat sent by Karl Marx from God knows where,” adding that she is supposed to be “a hot number,” before the compare asks with some astonishment: “Even Arabs in the Guard?” His reporter-colleague confirms the remarkable rumor.
While the connections between key Communards and Russia, Poland and Italy, as well as the long-exiled German Marx in London, are very briefly gestured toward in the film (the latter is barely touched on), much more time is spent in La Commune on the connections between the Commune and France’s broader colonial context. The debate between the TV reporters and the newspaper journalist about responsible pro-Commune media activity (discussed above) comes to an abrupt halt by way of a starkly different perspective when they are interrupted by a National Guardsman and a woman bringing news of an uprising in Algeria by the Pahis—a local version of the National Guard, but formed and commanded by colonial forces—upon returning home from Europe after being forced to fight for France again the Prussians. A text screen then tells us that many Algerians also remained in France to “rally to the Commune.” However, we are also informed, racism is nevertheless far from unheard of in the Commune via the example of a prominent National Guard commander well known for calling Algerian members “niggers.” In one of the bar scenes elsewhere in the film featuring Communards crammed around a large table, French nationals and North Africans tell the group about having seen and experienced at first hand the truth of France’s plundering in its new colonies. One of them switches to the present tense, noting that today the oppression is economic whereby the poor—presumably referring to the global situation, as well as inside France and its now former colonies—are disallowed access to the system. This discussion is then interrupted by a text screen detailing an occupation by 350 “illegal aliens” of a Paris church, “to denounce the state's refusal to resolve their administrative situation.” The date given for this reappropriation of space in the name of political—now “post-colonial”—insurrection is 18 March, 1996.
If the three journalists and other Communards in the film are silent at news of colonial atrocities in Algeria and elsewhere, while seeming to listen attentively, the film makes clear that the Commune itself is the product of an inherently colonial culture and far from able to escape it, irrespective of how interested these French revolutionaries may or may not be in enlarging the frame of reference to incorporate such a dimension. Throughout scenes directly addressing the question of colonialism, the Commune’s progressive and variously leftist nationals are faced with the difficult truth that their experiment in radical democracy essentially relies upon colonial exploitation. The bread eaten by poor citizens, one man tells the group, is made from wheat involuntarily grown and harvested for the French regime in Algeria. Here again the film prompts another striking resonance with the era of globalized capitalism in which its viewers live, such that even if someone wants to be an “ethical consumer” (however that may be defined) it is very hard to spend money outside an inherently exploitative and now technically post-colonial yet Western authored, and largely still Western dominated, economic system. In these and other respects, the diverse microcosm of 1871 has in the intervening century and a half only enlarged to become the global norm.
The most immediately obvious and “novel” way in which the film constitutes a trans-historical address remains Watkins’ trademark inclusion of a modern audiovisual mediascape within La Commune, which both encourages such time travelling and the opening up of political debate per se and the media’s role within it. This is both a provocative act of translation familiar from the director’s earlier historical films—such as The Battle of Culloden and Edvard Munch, each with loose settings predating the advent of film, yet featuring straight-to-camera documentary style interviews—and an entirely proper invocation of what reality means for a contemporary audience increasingly inter-connected via televisual and online networks. Will viewers—generally speaking, or more specifically when it comes to those who see this film—attain a sufficient state of ethical disgust at the status quo to “turn off the TV,” get off social media, and “do something”? The critique of key aspects of the bourgeois capitalist state and how it functions that motivates the Commune and much of its population, and the messy, often conflicted alternative vision thereby forged, are in the film both performed thanks to the presence in the cast of people with different political views and understandings of this radical democratic experiment. When it comes to elected representatives and regular citizens of the Commune, we hear a broad array of opinions, ranging from advocating the capitalist system’s outright abolition in favor of a communist or anarchist model (or a fusion thereof) through to more liberal-progressive Republican politics, with substantial sequences also devoted to those Paris residents maintaining a thoroughly anti-Commune, usually class-based position. Meanwhile, the more overtly present-day discussions by the film’s participants on screen range from radical left-wing critiques of the now far more globalized “neo-liberal” U.S.-authored order, through to speakers encouraging more moderate “reformist” and human rights-based positions, encouraging support of charities and non-government organizations such as Amnesty International or Médecins Sans Frontières.
The texture of different political positions voiced in La Commune are, according to a late text screen and Watkins’ website, broadly shared by the actor-participants themselves. As with his earlier Punishment Park, the largely non-professional actors were partially selected in accordance with their approximate political views, with the aim being to match as closely as possible the articulated ideological positions of on-screen characters with those of the real-life people playing them. Figures playing Communards thereby display diverse left-wing rhetoric ranging from revolutionary to moderate in such a way that we are never quite sure who is speaking—“character” or actor. Meanwhile, those playing Versailles TV reporters and various bourgeois and upper-class figures are apparently played by real-life conservatives and right-wingers of different kinds. With such a focus on argument and discussion, the film’s multi-vocal presentation of in-process, palimpsestic history spanning 1871 and 1999 means that the stories and experience of the Commune are told through and debated via “ordinary people” both then and now who hold diverse, often fluid views on the topic at hand and enthusiastically want to argue them through. That most of the participants knew little or nothing about the Commune beforehand means that each person’s thinking about its significance and meaning was very much developed throughout the film’s production, as influenced by a general political or ideological predisposition. Beyond the question of what exactly is said, this chorus of mixed, in-process political positions on the topic of the Commune and its meaning features a highly intimate and unconscious texture at the very point of each individual performative moment. La Commune is, importantly, overflowing with an instructive variety of voices when it comes to accent, language, and vocal timbre.
The majority of the film is spoken in French, but an array of accents and linguistic styles are heard throughout, from the well-educated diction of Thiers, the Versailles TV journalists, and the various business owners and other bourgeois figures, and more rarefied speech patterns of the upper-class characters, through to the contrasting majority working-class, regional, and “foreign” accents displayed by Commune citizens from elsewhere in Europe and North Africa. In addition to this instructively diverse, accented French, we also hear Polish, German, and Arabic in the film. The translation of these languages into French does not occur via subtitles (as with the French spoken by most of the actors and all the on-screen text in the U.S. DVD version) but rather “live” on screen, by one of the many people standing nearby—someone who could be another character/actor within the loose diegetic scenario but might also easily be, and on one level certainly is, a translator specially employed by the film for such a purpose, wearing period clothing due to being on screen. The Polish officers again provide a good example, one of them asking to speak to Commune TV in Polish while his comrade translates.
In addition to different accents and languages, we also hear a significant diversity of vocal timbres when it comes to age range, from children to elderly people. And as I have already suggested, female voices have a very prominent role throughout—singularly and in both mixed gender and women-only groups—as well as the voices of men of various on-screen occupations, from shopkeepers and employees to soldiers, journalists, and the unemployed. Meanwhile, the film deftly sidesteps the question of privileging one spoken accent and timbre to narrate or relay the historical context and comment on its events. Watkins replaces what would have been a very powerful off-screen “void-of-God” narration with French text screens. The lengthy tale is thereby told in the form of what remains a privileged but also contextually appropriate written language, drawing attention to the fact that this is both a very “French” story but also one in many respects disowned by “official” France, while also being of significant international importance. Combined with the regular few seconds of black usually highlighting edits between scenes and text screens, the use of copious written instead of audio narration also means that the film offers a stark set of audio oppositions strongly felt by the audience. Viewers are frequently lurched from absolute silence (sometimes, although not always, accompanying black and text screens) to the very diverse vocal mix, ranging from quiet individual expression and more intimate discussion scenes, to dense and often chaotic crowd sequences and boisterous singing, and back again.
Partly by way of its reporters’ consistently accented speaking voices and overall comportment, the national government’s Versailles TV unambiguously extols the power of imperial nation-state aristocracy and powerfully “rational” recounting of contemporary/distant history, portraying the Communards as dangerously amoral “anti-French” troublemakers, “criminals,” “foreigners,” and “prostitutes.” But beyond the addition of loosely binary TV networks and the inclusion in La Commune of anti- as well as different pro-Commune perspectives, even within the latter it becomes increasingly clear that this is not just Watkins’ or anyone else’s film when it comes to articulating a single view of the events and ideas at hand. Instead, a mass of multiple opinions is repeatedly given literal, variously accented voice. More than a simple mournful work about an event much mythologized by the now long-disenfranchised global radical left, the film illustrates in great detail, and again across time periods, how difficult revolutionary change really is. This remains the case even just considering the differences of opinion amongst the ostensibly progressive internal forces amassed under the banner of the Commune, let alone taking into account the seemingly insurmountable enemy beyond (the national government, particularly its military force). Through portraying the political and tactical challenges and contradictions of forging a coherent, unified political program, the film thereby once more points to closer connections between the Commune and recent events than might initially seem obvious.
Benjamin points out that the Communards themselves were never anything like “pure” revolutionaries, but rather comprised a large assortment of political positions and beliefs. This was starkly the case when it came to elected representatives. He quotes Delescluze, the prominent journalist and military officer of the Commune who was killed right near its end. The Commune “was formed of a coalition of revolutionaries without a common program,” writes Delescluze.
The Commune presented itself as seeking to continue, complete, or finally “correct” the official Revolution of the previous century and its aftermath by providing a more properly revolutionary conclusion. “The Commune felt itself to be, in all respects, the heir of 1793,” writes Benjamin. But what this means was very much in the eye of the beholder. The familiar point of revolutionary disagreement concerned how total such transformation would be, and the nature of its ultimate political tenor following the successful overthrow of the old order.
With the previous century’s revolutionary violence and subsequent repressions providing a sobering tale, from a leftist point of view the risks inherent in such a revolutionary experiment as the Commune were enormous. In fact, they are always far greater for the left than for conservative and right-wing forces, who despite their professed horror at radical change (of the left-wing kind at least) are virtually guaranteed to benefit from any attempted overthrow of the status quo following a brief moment of instability or chaos. Lefebvre writes of how the French Revolution provides the clearest of instructive history lessons on this question. The cautionary (and here pessimistic) but vital “Nietzschean” strain of his thinking coming through once again, Lefebvre lists the results of this seminal event—all of which contradict revolutionary left-wing principles. He writes:
Interestingly, this litany seems to apply to both the short and medium term aftermath of unsuccessful revolutionary action and “successful” revolutions, especially in light of the latter tending almost universally to be dominated by a single political party claiming to embody the revolution even as it immediately moves to establish a regime in many respects antithetical to the principles originally inspiring such radical change. That there was no “vanguard party” motivating or dominating the Paris Commune accounts for a large part of its historical importance and ongoing fascination—including, many scholars argue, causing significant re-thinking by Marx himself (marked by and extending beyond a reference to the Commune included in the 1872 edition Communist Manifesto preface). 
At the same time as offering a primary reason for the Commune’s dissolution, its lack of centralized control or “vanguard” leadership by a single party in favor of loose notions of consensus politics and participatory democracy is also frequently considered a crucial bulwark against the drift towards potentially totalitarian control. Long plaguing radical activists and theorists, this problem is dramatized within the film as the Commune faces escalating interior threats—real or perceived—as well as external ones, resulting in significant contradictions. The development of a powerful Central Committee within the Commune divides supporters between those who feel their revolution slipping away and others who argue that the desperate situation calls for such measures, as seen in many discussions amongst both National Guardsmen and regular citizens. Elsewhere, with the present tense perhaps more ambiguous—appearing to speak with the hindsight not only of the French Revolution but also the Soviet Union and other modern revolutionary outcomes—a young woman suggests to reporters: “Events show what happens when power is centralized.” Finally, as Lefebvre would put it, re-claiming the right to the city—or in more moderate terms, as Chomsky has characterized the global occupation of parks and city squares since 2010, “defending the global commons”—today remains a crucial act, if in itself inherently rearguard or even technically conservative, which plays out like a performative ritual echoing across history, marking such unresolved problems.
Meanwhile, no matter the historical period, critics of revolutionary fervour within the film play an important role in voicing scepticism and concern over the chaotic and increasingly violent nature of events. The bourgeois and upper-class figures in La Commune act like uncharacteristically disempowered “witnesses to history”—a role to which they are more starkly unaccustomed than the film’s majority working- and under-class protagonists, and deeply shocked to experience. They are not, however, just one-dimensional figures of ridicule. In scenes where privileged women (and sometimes men) are interviewed in groups by Versailles or Commune TV journalists in Paris or at Satory, they often comment very aggressively on the Commune, coming across as archetypical reactionaries if to differing degrees. The film spends more time presenting these characters in other contexts, with quite different results. One example is the owner of the dressmaking business, shown in conversation with her would-be workers across a series of scenes throughout the film. More precisely, the owner and the employees address each other but almost entirely through the “medium” of the Commune TV interviewers and their invisible camera, in their first scene together each party situated on opposite sides of the shop’s exterior door. The business owner can’t understand what has happened, why Paris’ workers are in revolt and two Versailles generals have been killed, hoping things can return to normal. While trying to keep in their boss’ good books enough to enable future employment upon any return to normalcy, standing on the other side of the doorway the would-be workers offer a different view of events, clearly desiring to speak their minds by supporting the Commune and its ideals of transcending such an exploitative socioeconomic system—presenting the distinct possibility, in other words, that the normal state of affairs should not in fact be restored.
While working-class characters such as the above women get the most inspiring lines and are treated with the most obvious sympathy by the film overall, their somewhat representative petit-bourgeois boss plays an importantly informative and critical function across the scenes in which she appears—even while saying comparably very little here and throughout, mainly looking on at the escalating events with increasing worry. In her eyes she is just trying to make a living and also, in the way the economy still loosely functions, provide work for others. She illustrates in the film how small business is assaulted by such a revolutionary moment, but less due to leftist attacks on capitalism itself and more because Paris has been put in an economic stranglehold by the national government trying to crush the radical experiment going on inside the capital. On one important level she represents a “middle-of-the-road” voice whose would-be “apolitical” arguments clearly ring hollow with self-interest. But at the same time, such an archetypal petit-bourgeois figure also effectively points out, irrespective of intention, that without a fundamental socioeconomic reordering that effectively abolishes free enterprise, people like her will remain vital to the everyday viability of a society when it comes to the basics of work and provision of goods.
Another example of La Commune’s important treatment of class-based anti-Commune citizens is strikingly different to anything else in the film. A handful of scenes return us to what a text screen introduces as an “upper-class” apartment relatively cut off from the chaos, in which a matriarch writes letters to her daughter in Versailles about the situation in Paris. “I loathe the Parisians being in constant revolt,” she writes when we first meet her—a meeting made explicit by her occasional gaze straight to camera. She sharply criticizes the government for delaying taking the cannon from the National Guard and botching the operation. In later scenes we also see her watching Versailles TV transmissions and hosting a dinner party. The film’s anti-Commune story is in many respects most thoroughly and interestingly played out in this quiet, heavily codified hermetic space. At the dinner party scene following the Committee of Public Safety announcement, the matriarch and her guests offer critiques of the Commune that often quite closely chime with those of the pro-Commune left-wing newspaper report mentioned above, the Commune TV journalist who resigned over no longer being able to uncritically report regressive measures, and many everyday pro-revolutionary working-class people on the street whom we hear expressing increasingly critical views of the Central Committee’s exponentially regressive decrees.
As with the pro-Commune working-class characters, the dinner party guests also exhibit a diversity of views in response to recent events. After they have all agreed on the excellence of the dinner, especially in light of food shortages in Paris, one of them goes so far as to quote from and then criticize a threatening proclamation by Thiers to the Commune leadership that was printed in the newspaper. The guest describes the language of France’s national leader as “quite menacing” and “an incitement to civil war.” This, he says, is what worries him the most (by implication, more than the actions of the Communards). Later, during semaine sanglante we hear in voice-over (accompanied by shots of the empty apartment sitting room and writing materials) the contents of another letter written by the matriarch describing the hope and joy of expecting Government troops to arrive in central Paris. She then expresses her dismay at the paranoid depths to which the army seems to have fallen. “But what despair and horror,” she says in voice-over, “when we saw regular army soldiers bringing back a Battalion officer who had spent two days among us, to shoot him.”
Soon after the Commune’s violent destruction, on the street another upper-class figure standing in a small group of similarly attired women begins to criticize the massacres, saying she just can’t believe Thiers has ordered such an atrocity. This confession works to encourage her friends to reveal gradually how ashamed they are of the army. “During 5 days, we witnessed human butchery,” says one woman who we saw hours earlier expressing utter horror at the Commune and its supporters. Describing how they played women in the film who were predisposed to reject the revolutionary events on class grounds, the actors then proceed to comment on how important the Commune has proved to be when it comes to fundamental democratic principles and forward-thinking policy. The upper-class and bourgeois characters at times offer surprising critiques of their “own side” of this Civil War, eventually painting the Commune in a much less negative light than earlier suggested by some of the same figures’ vitriolic interviews in which they come across as violently reactionary. Following the Commune’s initial declaration four-and-a-half hours earlier, while a more moderate upper-class woman admits the working class have reason to revolt but that she doesn’t want “things to get out of hand,” her friends are rather more blunt. One describes the insurrection and subsequent Commune as “grotesque and illegitimate,” while an especially outraged man asks: “What do they want? They’re being lead by foreigners.” While this initial response is important to articulate, for much of the film’s latter half La Commune presents a much more complex, not always predictable portrayal of its anti-Commune class-based antagonists. Thanks in part to the significant and increasingly nuanced role played by bourgeois and upper-class figures, in addition to “internal” left-wing and working-class critiques, we are forced to face up to the Commune’s—and any revolutionary period’s—darker side.
In addition to the colonial question being presented as an interesting but ultimately peripheral side issue for most Communards even among the theoretically sympathetic ones, and the presence of racism within the Commune, evidence of persistent sexism is also repeatedly apparent, especially as expressed by the National Guard. This is highlighted when the Montmartre women suggest they join the Guard’s doomed march on Versailles to help, including serving as medics—an idea treated as reasonable by one uniformed man holding a young girl, but risible by others. Everyday racism and sexism, then draconian law and order decrees, censorship, and regular interrogation of suspected spies by officers of the Commune (including the case of a drunk man arrested and accused of making “defeatist remarks” in a bar whereupon he is suspected of being “in contact with Versailles”) are all soberly recounted by the film as regressive aspects of revolutionary history it is important to confront. Also made clear is the fact that life was often much harder during the period of the Commune for the very people it purported to be serving. In one of the later scenes featuring discussion at the dressmaker and washhouse business, we see the women finally back at work. However, the telling cost of this is soon revealed when we learn they are only working thanks to a major contract between their employer and the Commune itself based on severely reduced wages. One of the women comments: “It’s all topsy-turvy: The Commune is in power. And the boss says they're only paying half.” A text screen then informs us that a subsequent investigation into the clothing trade finds that the Commune has been signing cut-price contracts with employers offering lower wage costs.
La Commune tells viewers at the start of its end credits that the film “has been made with the collaboration of 220 citizens of Paris and its banlieues, plus a group of ‘illegal aliens’ from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.” In addition to the collaborative and personal research involved in the film’s preparation, we are informed that participants were free to develop characters “according to their own experience and motivations. What they say is largely based on their personal beliefs and feelings.” If this information had been provided near the start of the film, the important but often ambiguous slippage felt by the viewer when it comes to deciding who is speaking in a given moment—character or actor—would be more clearly foregrounded. But it would also make this performative question far less generative, taking away one of the central means by which La Commune insists on viewers’ active engagement with what we see and hear. To learn of this production context at the end of the film ensures the viewer is finally made aware of the inherently trans-historical nature of its multi-vocal discourse. The on-screen discussions and arguments throughout, either directly or across intercut scenes, constitute a key driver of La Commune’s complex, paradoxical sense of a time-travelling “presentness”—its virtual staging of a purportedly dead, “failed” and long forgotten or repressed moment of revolutionary possibility for on- and off-screen audiences and participants circa 1999 and subsequently.
The key to the film, in so many ways, remains its palimpsestic style of history telling, featuring a constantly fluid and ambiguous present tense yet all the while insisting on a sense of literal presentness. That this evocation of grassroots democratic discourse occurs thanks to an audiovisual medium so often employed to pacify viewer-consumers is made clear throughout. At a work cooperative meeting, one man says: “It’s not only a question of work equality and profit sharing. It’s also equality of speech. Everyone has the right of say. And then everyone discusses it. That’s real citizenship. That's what strikes me during the Commune. People experienced citizenship all the way.” Another responds: “Do people have the right of speech today?” A third replies: “TV talks to you but you can't answer.”