Johns Hopkins University
Jean Renoir’s panorama of the French Revolution, La Marseillaise, was one of the great critical and commercial disappointments of his extraordinary career. When released in 1938, it was greeted tepidly on the Left and with outright hostility from the Right. “So that’s your great national production?” the reactionary Georges Champeaux inquired. “That’s the fresco, the magisterial representation, the cultural monument, the epic… Monsieur Renoir?” Audiences across the political spectrum, presumably even many of those who supported the production through its novel subscription program, stayed away. When the film did no better at re-release, on the eve of May ‘68, Renoir opined that it would “come into its own perhaps only in twenty years more.” But even the bicentennial of the French Revolution did not enhance its popularity.
Why, then, return to such a movie? Why not simply acknowledge its defeat and leave it to oblivion? Because La Marseillaise offers pleasures aesthetic and intellectual, makes an historically informed argument, and stands alone in its celebration of the French Revolution. Informed by research from members of the Sorbonne’s newly founded Institut d’histoire de la Révolution française, Jean Renoir managed to produce a film that represented late eighteenth-century society and culture in ways that integrated the scholarship of his day and presciently looked forward to the scholarship of the late twentieth century. If La Marseillaise is sometimes stiff or schematic, it is also buoyant and optimistic, its fulsome endorsement of the political hopes of the early 1790s setting it apart from all other films about the French Revolution.
Jean Renoir was tapped by the PCF in 1936 to direct an as-yet-unnamed French revolutionary film which, it was hoped, would cement Popular Front enthusiasm by celebrating the birth of the republic. A fellow traveler rather than party member, Renoir had already given cinematic shape to his political convictions. In 1936 alone he turned out three films that championed working class interests. La vie est à nous, a collaborative project with fellow director Jacques Becker and French Communist party members, mingled documentary and fiction to condemn the rising wave of Fascism at home and abroad, and dramatize mobilization against workplace exploitation. The more conventional fiction film, Le Crime of M. Lange, imagined an idyllic workers’ cooperative and justified the murder of the venal entrepreneur who threatened it. The Lower Depths, based on a short story by Maxim Gorky, lent still more forceful approval to the murder of another grasping proprietor by giving the perpetrator – played by an incandescent Jean Gabin – a happy escape with the lover he had saved. It was perhaps films like these that Renoir had in mind when he argued that cinema, “this fundamentally popular art,” should be rescued from the bourgeois who traditionally monopolized its production and restore it to “the people of France.”
Despite such sympathies, however, Renoir’s vision of the French Revolution did not at first differ significantly from what other “bourgeois” directors had already turned out. Slighting “the people” as he considered casting and content, he imagined a movie that would match the stars of the day – Louis Jouvet, Eric Von Stroheim, Jean Gabin – with the great heroes of the Revolution – Brissot, Danton, Robespierre. It is not clear why Renoir changed his mind about what story he would tell but that may have been prompted by his team of historical consultants, who included published historians, fellows from the Institut d’histoire de la Révolution française, and the Institut’s director, Georges Lefebvre. What is clear is that sometime between the second and third drafts of his screenplay, Renoir abandoned this celebrity approach to draft a film about ordinary men and women involved in what the subtitle modestly tells us were “a few incidents contributing to the fall of the monarchy.”
La Marseillaise deceives us about its project by opening at the royal palace at Versailles, where a courtier brings news of the fall of the Bastille. But the film moves quickly down the social scale as it looks south to focus on a band of Marseillais led by Bomier, a mason with a thick southern accent, and a local tax clerk, Arnaud. These honorable members of the Third Estate and their friends move in picaresque fashion through the early years of the Revolution to the war fever of 1792 when they march from Marseilles to Paris with the new nation’s nascent anthem, and finally make a triumphant assault on the Tuilleries palace. As Renoir stages their journey, he makes a case for a French Revolution that was orderly and fraternal, descending into violence only when provoked by treacherous aristocrats and their foreign allies.
The well-educated Arnaud serves as the principal spokesman for lawfulness, defending an assault on local chateaux by paraphrasing Babeuf’s maxim – “Our masters… made us barbarians by being barbarians themselves” – and later reminding Bomier that they cannot found order through chaos. Other characters echo and expand on Arnaud’s statements while the structure of the film indicts the aristocracy.
The opening scene has already exonerated the king, for he receives word of the Bastille’s defeat with a look of gentle astonishment and returns to the roast chicken on which he lunches in bed. Much later in the film we see the king’s good-nature intensify the nation’s crisis, but that scene is played to make clear that the queen is really to blame for Louis’ fatal misstep. And yet, even then, a duplicitous queen is but part of a larger system. The true enemy of the French Revolution, Renoir insists, is a nobility grown fat on Old Regime privilege which refused to understand or accept the popular will for liberty and equality.
The movie drives this point home across three scenes that lead us to the war. In the first of them, Arnaud explains citizenship to the Marquis de Saint-Laurent, the former commander of a Marseilles fort that Arnaud and his fellow “patriots” have peacefully taken over. When Saint-Laurent rejects equality and fraternity, Arnaud genially wishes him a good trip to the border and pleasant stay in Germany. The next scene unfolds in Coblentz, where Saint-Laurent and his fellow émigrés alternate between drawing-room entertainment and conversation about returning to France by force of Prussian arms. The last scene of the triptych takes place at a guard station near Valenciennes, past which refugees are fleeing. A woman stops long enough to tell the French soldiers stationed there that Austrian troops have burned her village and hanged her husband. “Is it true they have French people with them?” she asks. “Of course,” one soldier replies, “aristocrats.” The call to arms that follows, back in Marseilles, appears the only legitimate response.
Renoir has been criticized for not being hard enough on the Revolution’s opponents, accused of indulging his conviction that “everyone has their reasons,” which he later popularized in The Rules of the Game. On the contrary, La Marseillaise is quite clear about the friends and enemies of the French Revolution. But delineating such political categories did not prevent him from treating individual characters respectfully: the Marquis de Saint-Laurent may resist the idea of citizenship but he is neither a monstrous nor even a rude man. Nor need he be. The structure and mood of the movie give sufficient context to make patently clear that this character is in the wrong.
In his representation of a beneficent French Revolution imperiled by selfish aristocrats and a hostile Prussia, Renoir fused Popular Front ideology with academic history. On the one hand, his vilification of the aristocracy cannot help but recall the warnings against France’s “two hundred families” (the 1930s equivalent of the 1%) with which La Vie est à nous began, while his enthusiastic revolutionary crowds clearly evoked the democratic festivities of a Popular Front that was already defeated by the time La Marseillaise was released. On the other hand, Renoir’s portrait of a nation of commoners united against privilege and royal absolutism carried to 1792 the spirit of 1789 as Georges Lefebvre was, at that very moment, spelling out in The Coming of the French Revolution. In film and text alike, caste, class, and political position coincide to give logical shape to the unfolding of revolution. The symmetry between movie and book is hardly surprising, for if Lefebvre shared research with Renoir about the details of revolutionary life, it is impossible to imagine that he did not also explain the broader political dynamic he believed to be at work after 1789.
Renoir integrated the conclusions of contemporary historians into La Marseillaise, but his film was prescient of the scholarship that would blossom half a century later. This is most apparent in his representation of revolutionary women. Admittedly, no female character stands out like Bomier or Arnaud, but each of them nonetheless suggests a different facet of her sex’s complex engagement with the Revolution. Bomier’s mother is a simple woman with no interest in politics, saddened by his departure for Paris and the front, but acquiescent because he is “the man of the house.” The patriotic Louison, with whom Bomier falls in love in Paris, takes part in the city’s public battles, her presence there and her romance with Bomier suggesting a fuller mingling of public and private than Richard Cobb imagined. Some of the cultivated noblewomen of Coblenz are faintly ridiculous, but they are also shown struggling to sustain the memory of their previous life. As the film’s only unmitigated villain, Marie Antoinette is also its only female stereotype.
The most interesting woman is, undeniably, Louise Vauclair. Fishwife and tax-payer, Vauclair boldly addresses the Marseilles Jacobin Club as members debate war in the scene that immediately follows the depiction of people fleeing Valenciennes. The nation must be wary of its cowardly king and arrogant foreign queen, she warns, just as it must be wary of a fearful, selfish assembly. Only by defeating those traitors can the people be certain that its men will not be betrayed when they go to war. Holding her head high, she urges a new revolution without actually naming it. This is no bloodthirsty harpy like Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities, but a woman who draws much closer to the radicals, described two generations later by scholars like Harriet Applewhite, Darlene Levy, and Dominique Godineau, and now fully integrated into standard historiography.
Renoir was equally prescient in his representation of revolutionary culture, reflecting on the vitality that a later generation of historians would explore through political clubs, newspapers, popular theater, and, of course, songs. And Renoir enhanced his reflection by mingling the culture of his day with that of the Revolution. He drew on familiar cinematic technique, for example, by using a montage of newspaper headlines to illustrate competing reactions to the Brunswick Manifesto: the titles and opening lines of the Journal des débats et decrets, Les Actes des Apôtres, Révolutions de Paris, L’Ami du peuple, and other papers whoosh by to indicate a rising level of debate. (For those likely to wonder how the words of those papers circulated, the montage concludes with the scene of a fédéré reading to his fellows.) The scene where Bomier and his friends attend a performance at a boulevard theater features a shadow play created by one of the great (and few female) animators of Renoir’s era: Lotte Reniger.
Amidst all this, the film’s account of its eponymous anthem is both entertaining and perceptive. Renoir underscores the status of the Marseillaise as a hymn of the people by eliding its celebrated moment of composition to focus instead on its rising popularity. He does so through the figure of bluff revolutionary Bomier. After hearing the unnamed song for the first time, performed informally by fédérés from Montpellier, the mason’s embrace is uncertain. “I like that song,” he tells his friends, “but it’s not quite how things are.” Moreover, he complains, it’s pretentious. The better educated Arnaud has already been won over: admitting that he has no idea who the composer is – “Desile? Delisle?” – he describes it as “an echo of my own thoughts.” Although Bomier replies that it is just a passing fancy, we next see a large Marseilles crowd singing it while their fédérés prepare to depart. And so the mason slowly comes around: he works hard with a friendly tutor to master the difficult lyrics, appropriates Arnaud’s claim that it is an echo of his thoughts, and insists that it will unite all of France. When the Marseilles fédérés arrive in Paris, they are singing “their” hymn to a welcoming crowd.
Unlike Rouget de Lisle’s challenging song, Renoir’s film has an undeniable simplicity. Its sets are often plain and the acting unaffected, even if the dialogue feels stilted because it so often consists of declamatory speeches. But Renoir’s admiration for a democratic revolution committed to liberty and political equality is palpable. If for no other reason than its repudiation of the ferocious mobs and relentless guillotines that haunt most movies about the French Revolution, La Marseillaise would be worth watching. But there are more reasons than that.
This is not just a thoughtful rendering of the French Revolution which echoes the emotions that inspired many revolutionaries. It also represents the Revolution’s legacy by offering a portrait of that event’s meaning for many in the Popular Front. Admittedly, it disappointed critics and audiences at the time, and has failed with many a cineaste since, but I would make the case this may well be because Renoir rejected more predictable ways of representing the Revolution to celebrate “the people” instead.
La Marseillaise merits inclusion in any undergraduate survey of the French Revolution, as an occasion to discuss early hopes and fears, and it would be especially useful in the French Revolution section of the Reacting to the Past series. At present, the textbook for that historical game recommends that players organize a discussion around André Wajda’s Danton, using the Polish film to reflect on the Revolution’s turn to violence and suspension of the rule of law after 1792. If students are to watch the darkest film we have about the French Revolution (both literally and figuratively), why not begin with the brightest? Offering them a clearer sense of revolutionaries’ highest hopes, may help students feel more keenly what these people were fighting for and what they were unable to salvage.
In any case, La Marseillaise – available with the subtitles only in the 3-DVD set Jean Renoir: Collector’s Edition – merits an evening for anyone interested in representations of the French Revolution. It is an engaging and sympathetic portrait through which a singular director and his distinguished historical advisors tried to close the gap between their past and present, if only for a moment.
Jean Renoir, Director, La Marseillaise, France, 1938, b/w, 135 min. La compagnie Jean Renoir, Société d’Exploitation et de Distribution de Films (SEDIF), Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT)
- Christophe Chauville, “La réception critique de La Marseillaise de Jean Renoir: La représentation cinématographique de la Révolution française: un enjeu politico-intellectuel à l’époque du Front populaire,” Cahiers d’histoire de l’institut de recherches marxistes no. 60 (1995) p. 38.
- La Marseillaise was to be financed through something like a popular advance on receipts: spectators likely to see the film were asked to contribute 40 sous each for the production. When that project failed to produce sufficient funds, Renoir turned to other sources. See Chauville, ibid. p. 36.
- Dudley Andrew, “Revolution and the Ordinary: Renoir’s La Marseillaise,” Yale Journal of Criticism vol. 4, no. 1 (Fall 1990) p. 53.
- Ettore Scola’s La Nuit de Varennes (1982) also casts a sympathetic eye on the early years of the French Revolution, but without the enthusiasm that Renoir had mustered almost fifty years earlier.
- I am not alone in thinking La Marseillaise under-rated. Dudley Andrew and Steven Ungar devote an approving chapter to it in Popular Front Paris and the Poetics of Culture (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2005). See also: Brett Bowles, “Renoir under the Popular Front: Aesthetics, Politics, and the Paradoxes of Engagement” and Tom Brown, “The Performance of History in La Marseillaise,” both in Alastair Phillips and Ginette Vindendeau (eds), A Companion to Jean Renoir (Chichester, West Sussex, UK; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).
- Jean-Paul Morel, “Il était une fois La Marseillaise ou ‘touche pas aux mythes’,” Les cahiers de la cinémathèque no. 70 (Oct. 1999) p.106.
- Pascal Mérigeau, Jean Renoir (Paris: Flammarion, 2012) p. 354.
- Dudley Andrew & Steven Ungar, Popular Front Paris, op cit. pp. 155-56. They mistakenly refer to the IHRF as the Sorbonne’s “Centre d’Etudes sur la Révolution française.”
- Dudley Andrew & Steven Ungar, op cit. pp. 156-57.
- Pascal Ory, La Belle Illusion: Culture et politique sous le signe du Front populaire, 1935-1938 (Paris: Plon, 1994) pp. 458-59. See also Jonathan Buchsbaum’s unsparing criticism of a film whose dismissal he encapsulates by saying, “As a bland embodiment of Popular Front ideology it has no rival.” Cinema Engagé: Film in the Popular Front (Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988) p. 258.
- Richard Cobb, “La vie en marge: Living on the Fringe of the Revolution,” Reactions to the French Revolution (London, NY, Toronto: Oxford UP, 1972).
- Jennifer Popiel, Mark C. Carnes, Gary Kates, Rousseau, Burke, and Revolution in France, 1791. Instructors Guide. 2nd edition (New York & London: Norton, 2015) p. 44.