La nuit de Varennes and Danton

Volume 2, Issue 3

It is not easy to depict the complexities of the Revolution without sounding didactic or ponderous and, as a result, there are few “decent” films one would wish to show students, and even fewer that come with subtitles.  Two films that continue to engage our attention through powerful performances and stellar script are Ettore Scola’s 1982 La nuit de Varennes and Andrzej Wajda’s 1983 Danton. The first is set in June 1791 and presents a cross-section of French society and different stances on revolutionary events through a group of travelers following the king’s route, tossed about both literally and metaphorically in their stagecoach. Highly literate yet remarkably lively, the film offers us a way of approaching the Revolution without sacrificing its complexities. Now, all we need, is for the subtitled version (available on YouTube) to be dependably marketed. The second, based on a Polish play by Stanislawa Przybysweska, rewritten by Jean-Claude Carrière and Agnieszka Holland among others, is set at the heart of the Terror. It is, to my mind, the best film on the Revolution ever made, and one I show to students whenever I can, having managed to pick a slice that runs from the dinner confrontation between Danton and Robespierre to Danton’s arrest and the first stage of the trial, which is manageable in an hour-long class. I only wish that Robespierre had been played by a younger actor, but until someone decides to adapt Hilary Mantel’s masterpiece, A Place of Greater Safety (that we are reviewing in an upcoming issue), this will remain the most potent version of the conflict we have.

All the world’s a stagecoach:  La nuit de Varennes

Jack Censer
George Mason University

Two years into the French Revolution, as the first constitution was nearing completion, the royal couple grew restive. Detained, more or less under house arrest, Louis and Marie-Antoinette were becoming especially alarmed by the way the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was transforming the Church. And, of course, living in Paris, they were never far from the populace which, while it had demonstrated some loyalty, had also revealed its potential for anger and violence. In this circumstance, the king played a double game, treating with the revolutionary government while negotiating with foreign powers for support and even armed intervention.

This was the situation when the monarch decided to flee the city to go abroad. A plot was hatched and Louis and Marie-Antoinette with family and retainers left Paris secretly heading northeast toward Germany, where friendly French troops would escort them across the border, presumably to lead an army that would reinstate the monarch’s full control over France. In fact, the trip, which began on the evening of June 21, ended with their arrest by local officials at Varennes, near the frontier.

Although the National Assembly was persuaded to treat the flight as a kidnapping and Louis kept his crown, tensions increased. Only three weeks later, partly in response to this flight, Parisian radicals petitioned for the end of monarchy. At a signing ceremony on the Champs de Mars, a military parade ground (now part of the area around the Eiffel Tower), suspicion led to violence. The authorities invoked martial law. The National Guard fired on the crowd, resulting in many casualties. Such events rendered the creation of a stable, moderate regime impossible.

La Nuit de Varennes (The Night of Varennes), a widely distributed film made in 1983, was set the day of the flight. Hailed at the time and again in 1992, when President François Mitterand selected two movies to show on the French Revolution, La Nuit de Varennes shared the spotlight with Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise (1937). Ironically, in recounting the story of the attempted escape, La Nuit barely touches on the royal family, but instead follows a fictional stagecoach traveling largely the same route, from Paris to Metz. The coach contains a cast of characters whose interactions create tension and drama. Some of the passengers planned to be on the stagecoach; others not. Some are deliberately following the king; others not. In the end, those on the trail arrive to witness the arrest of the king and queen and their humiliation.

At the time of its production, the movie received critical acclaim and scholars viewed it as an interesting take on the revolution; it still deserves praise, and remains an excellent vehicle (pun intended) to study the revolution. Director Ettore Scola meticulously recreates the material aspects of life allowing students to picture living conditions. Furthermore, the discussion and interplay among the travelers and their surroundings provide sophisticated insights into different views of the revolution. In a nutshell, the most important facet of the film from a pedagogical perspective is the debate over the revolution among the travelers. Yet this will serve more to reinforce what most instructors might do in class. The film suffers from overly confining certain viewpoints to a class or a particular profession. Despite this flaw, La Nuit does propose an interpretation of class distinctions that will stimulate all types of viewers. Even if one disagrees with its snapshots, they are subtle, interesting, and stimulating.

The movie is most compelling in its understanding of aristocracy. The stagecoach includes the beautiful countess Sophie de la Borde (Hanna Schygulla) who has been entrusted with the royal wardrobe to be worn on Louis’s hoped-for triumphal return to the capital. Also, in the mix is the Italian nobleman and noted rake Casanova (Marcello Mastroianni) who is fleeing from Count von Waldstein, who is demanding his presence as payment for debts. At first, these aristocrats seem tolerant, embracing the most advanced ideas of the Enlightenment. Casanova, though now aging, appears as sophistication itself. All the ladies, and even the men, swoon over him. But the deficiencies of aristocracy manifest themselves in their challenge to the new bourgeois values of sexual propriety. The countess and Casanova, separated by decades in age, flirt and openly wish that they had been either older or younger. Accompanying the countess is her hairdresser Jacob (Jean-Claude Brialy), emasculated through stereotypes involving his gestures and dress. Perhaps the clearest indication, at least to French audiences, was the use of Brialy, one of the first French leading men to be openly gay. His interaction with Casanova includes a light but amorous kiss on the lips, in a display of the recurrent contemporary critiques of the aristocracy as effeminate and lacking “true” masculinity.

The negative aura around the aristocrats in the film goes beyond their “uncertain” sexual identities. One image is particularly telling. At a relay, when Casanova asks for some privacy, he is given a stall where he combs his wig and powders his face while relieving himself. There, wig off, with his breeches pulled down to his knees, Casanova appears a very old man. Dignity has given way to vulnerability. Likewise the countess, although bravely bearing the king’s capture, seems out of touch as she bows down to the king’s costume she has unpacked, hanging on a mannikin whose head seems dangerously askew. Her sophistication has given way to a kind of monomania.

When the film turns to the upper middle classes, it is likewise uncharitable. Here, in the guise of a judge, industrialist, and widow of a wine grower, rich commoners come across as narrow and selfish. Interestingly, the judge – an official of the Old Regime – is treated more harshly than the owner of ironworks, perhaps showing greater approval of capitalism. But it is the widow who receives the most negative treatment. Enamored with Casanova, she propositions him, but he graciously turns her down, invoking his decreptitude. But she soon discovers that he can still be amorous as she catches him in an embrace. Although the viewer later learns that she was mistaken, the widow feels humiliated. Neither this film nor the revolution offer her a meaningful role, but, then, the bourgeois men shuffle out of the movie in a similarly unremarkable way.

The middling sorts between rich and poor are treated more ambiguously: this social group is embodied by an educated young man as well as a national guardsman who is trying to intercept the king before the party reaches the border. Both seem extremely masculine and strong. In fact, a flirtation develops between the countess’s servant, a young woman of African descent, riding on top the coach, and the student. Over the course of the trip, they kiss and caress, and he invites her home with him to meet his family. Appearing as handsome, open to difference, and indeed holding strong revolutionary views, he is also rude and totally unwilling to engage in an open exchange of views if they include a counterrevolutionary perspective. Likewise the national guardsman is crude and ill-bred. Unkempt, he is a totally unattractive man.

The intellectuals and artists receive the most favorable treatment: Casanova in his role as a writer and observer, an Italian opera singer on her way to an engagement, Tom Paine (played by American Harvey Keitel) and the famous Rétif de la Bretonne who is La Nuit’s covert hero (Jean-Louis Barrault). These characters are shown to advantage by the script and camera lens. Their words offer the justification for the revolution. Paine is the one person in the film who is associated completely with the revolution and who receives an overall positive treatment. Though revolutionary, he is thoughtful and embraces the notion of dissent. And perhaps in the most beautiful scene of the movie, Casanova and the opera singer display their virtue by singing a snippet from Le mariage de Figaro.

As the previous analysis indicates, gender plays a large role in establishing the moral worth of the characters and the groups they represent. Almost without exception, the old regime appears to produce effeminate males; the revolution their opposite. Interestingly, all the intellectuals, except Casanova who cuts across social lines, are seen as normative in their masculinity, directly or indirectly. Rétif de la Bretonne is first introduced as the chronicler of over 400 sexual encounters with women. Although his behavior also challenges bourgeois ideals of domesticity embraced by the revolution, Rétif is so charming that the tawdry side is largely subsumed. It would seem that the filmmaker, like the revolutionaries, signals his preference for domesticated and restrained sexual behavior.

As interesting as are the class vignettes, few historians would embrace them as accurate. The 1980s sexism and homophobia seem especially dated. But these images, it seems to me, capture quite accurately the actual point of view of moderate revolutionaries who prevailed in the Assembly until 1791 and even of many Jacobins later on.

Besides recounting the revolution from the perspective of its contemporaries, the movie also treats the time period as disturbing. Rapid scene changes render the film sometimes disjointed but also convey the discomfort of the characters. Numerous scenes are shot with dust flying everywhere. Such conditions so annoy the hairdresser that he veils his face. But the use of dust can also reinforce the social message of the film. At one point Casanova attempts to overtake the stagecoach with his own carriage. As it does so, the Italian proclaims, “let them eat our dust.” The public stagecoach cannot compete with the private (though very cramped) conveyance which carries the aristocratic Casanova. Yet the very next day, Casanova’s vehicle breaks down as a wheel gives way, probably as the occupant notes, as a result of the race. Even the noble conveyance has, in fact, failed.

Yet if the revolution seems shrouded and problematic, the movie trumpets that the revolution remains relevant to the present. At beginning and end, the movie relies on two rather unusual gimmicks. As the film opens, a Venetian acting troupe in its boat moored beneath a bridge on the Seine, in 1791, portrays several revolutionary figures. The centerpiece is a shadow box displaying important revolutionary scenes such as images of the royal family and the fall of the Bastille. To the completely uninitiated moviegoer, these vignettes provide a background to the flight to Varennes. More than that, they suggest to the viewer the notion of the representation of the revolution. They also signal to current audiences that such scenes are part of an ongoing process of visiting and revisiting the past that began with the revolution itself, in which, while watching the film, they are still participating. Reinforcing the significance of these shadow box scenes, the movie returns at the very end to this same set this time with vignettes relating the king’s flight. Emerging from the cacophony of the Italian boat, Rétif himself ascends the steps to street level to face the congestion of modern-day Parisian automobile traffic. To cement this paired introduction and conclusion, Rétif notes the connection of experiences over the centuries as the movie begins to roll the credits.

In conclusion, as a teaching device, La Nuit de Varennes has much to say, and in my view, few rivals. In this regard, at least, Mitterand got it right.

Ettore Scola, Director, La nuit de Varennes [Night of Varennes] (1982) color, France, Italy, Gaumont, France 3, Opera Film Produzione, Running Time: 131 min.


Andzrej Wajda’s Danton

Mary Ashburn Miller
Reed College

Nearly thirty years have passed since Andzrej Wajda’s Danton, starring Gérard Depardieu as the insouciant revolutionary, opened in Paris and Warsaw. The film, a Franco-Polish collaboration featuring a transnational and bilingual cast, focuses on the political elite of the French Revolution in the spring of 1794. Danton takes as its subject the conflict between two flawed leaders: Georges Danton– gregarious, indulgent, confident — and Maximilien Robespierre –ill, ascetic, and portrayed as looking considerably older than his 35 years. Played by a Frenchman and a Pole, respectively, Danton and Robespierre argue over who can claim to be the voice of the people. In their conversations about the direction of the Revolution, they quite literally do not speak the same language – a fact that the (French) dubbing and (English) subtitling obscure. The film culminates in Danton’s trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal, in which Depardieu makes impassioned appeals to the camera before his character is silenced by a decree of the Committee of Public Safety. The film’s final scenes, which take place at the public execution of Danton and Camille Desmoulins and in the private apartment of Robespierre, force the viewer to confront the question at the heart of the movie: what role did personal friendships and enmities play in creating the political tragedy of the Terror?

In mixing the personal and the political, and in juxtaposing the private spaces of revolutionaries’ lives with the public spaces of the Revolution like the Convention floor, the Tribunal, and the Place de la Révolution (present-day place de la Concorde), the film has stood the test of time, both as an engaging narrative of the Terror and as a classroom tool. In the 1980s, much was written on the background of Polish Solidarity against which this film was written and produced, and in France, criticism focused on the apparently counterrevolutionary stance of Wajda, whose depiction of the Revolution is framed by the looming image of the guillotine.[1] In fact, these criticisms of Danton could serve as a site for thinking through the legacies of the Revolution and the ways in which it has been appropriated and re-narrated by later political groups. Paired with Robert Darnton’s essay, “Danton and Double Entendre,” the film and its reception remind us of the continuing battles over the legacy of the Revolution in twentieth- (and one may suggest, twenty-first) century France.[2]

But it is not merely, or even primarily, its role as a contested revolutionary myth that makes this film such a useful addition to the classroom. It is highly successful in evoking the details of the revolutionary moment. The figure of Georges Couthon in a wheelchair, the grumbling in the bread lines of wartime Paris, the Phrygian caps:  all these permit a visualization of revolutionary culture that texts alone could not convey. The chilling scene in which Danton, Desmoulins, and their fellow prisoners have their collars and hair cut off to expose their necks is a graphic illustration of the bodily transformation imposed by the guillotine. Even the factually problematic scene in which Robespierre demands that Jacques-Louis David remove Fabre d’Eglantine (who would not have been present at the Estates-General) from his unfinished painting of the Tennis Court Oath expresses a political and artistic reality: David did constantly revise this painting to accommodate the changing political climate, and art – especially his art — was both a handmaiden of and a catalyst for politics. If the revolutionary government needed to “prepare public opinion,” as Couthon declares in a Committee of Public Safety meeting in the movie, then art offered a powerful mechanism for fomenting revolutionary ideas.

What is more, despite the passage of nearly thirty years, the issues raised in the film remain highly relevant given recent revolutionary historiography that treats the Terror as an intimate and emotional event. Critics of the film have focused on the fact that Wajda’s Terror takes place in a vacuum, stripped of all its precipitating causes. War is hardly mentioned; the émigrés – like the flight to Varennes – become the namesake of a dish at Danton’s elaborate dinner for Robespierre, but are colorful period details as opposed to historical agents and counter-revolutionary threats.   Likewise, Danton’s political infelicities – the suspicious circumstances in which he accumulated his newfound wealth, for example – are reduced to personal vices: Depardieu’s Danton drinks too much, is prideful and over-indulgent.[3] Indeed, the pivotal scene in the movie, in which Robespierre dines (or rather, chooses not to dine despite a lavishly prepared meal) with Danton in a private suite, only to witness Danton’s descent into inebriation and finally slumber, makes Robespierre’s political turn against Danton seem to be rooted in personal, rather than political, disapproval.  The Terror in Wajda’s retelling becomes a mere power grab, where spite is as significant as the desperate attempt to hold on to power.

As a result, within the film’s narrative, there is something inexplicable about Robespierre’s sudden spiral into dictatorial ambitions in the wake of the fateful dinner with Danton. Robespierre voices reservations throughout the film about the direction which the Revolution is taking; he speaks with Saint-Just of his desire to end the carnage of the Terror, defends both Danton and Desmoulins against their detractors early in the film, and speaks with ominous regret after Danton’s execution. But it is only after the tête à tête in Danton’s private chambers that his doubts give way to decisive action. It is after the dinner that his fellow Committee of Public Safety members accuse Robespierre of acting like a monarch; later, he circumvents the law to ensure a sympathetic jury at Danton’s trial. It is as if Danton’s fate is sealed by his overindulgences and his ad hominem attacks on Robespierre’s asceticism, and not political necessity or even ideology. This causal mechanism is, perhaps fittingly and intentionally, dissatisfying: surely, the viewer thinks, Danton is not sent to his death for petty personal grievances; surely Robespierre does not abandon law and justice out of spite and disgust.

And yet, as Marisa Linton has recently demonstrated, the Terror was, in fact, sometimes tragically intimate.  Friendships mattered in the behind-closed-doors machinations of the revolutionary government, and in the procurement of government positions for trusted individuals; they also mattered in identifying conspirators who too often met in private.  It is no historical error that in Wajda’s evocative representation of the Revolutionary Tribunal, one of the first questions Fouquier-Tinville asks of Danton’s fellow defendants is whether or not they are friends. As Linton writes, “The legitimate venues for the conduct of revolutionary politics were places to which all citizens might have access: the revolutionary assemblies, sections, and committees, and the clubs for which membership was open – at least in theory – to everyone who could pay the fee.”[4] Personal relationships that developed beyond the public gaze could render one potentially suspect.

What is more, personal vices and private behavior did matter in judging character and political affinities during the Revolution. As recent historiography has argued, the period of the Terror in particular emphasized the need for transparency between private emotion and public action.[5] The 1793 Law of Suspects, after all, condemned “those who, by their conduct, associations, comments, or writings have shown themselves partisans of tyranny or federalism and enemies of liberty,” and individuals “ who have not constantly demonstrated their devotion to the Revolution.”[6] Inappropriate associations and improper emotions were condemnable crimes. While Danton does not portray the politicization of emotion that historians have recently stressed, it does depict the Jacobins’ (here metonymized in the figure of Robespierre) idealization of a personally and politically virtuous figure.[7] “You want men to act like the heroes of novels,” Danton replies to Robespierre’s condemnation of revolutionary profiteers. In its elision of the personal and the political – and in its portrayal of the Revolutionary Tribunal, one of the only such cinematic depictions I am aware of  — Danton should not only generate a vigorous conversation about the causes of the Terror, but should also allow for reflection on revolutionary justice and definitions of criminality.[8]

Finally, in his emphasis on the personal relationships and private motivations driving the Terror, Wajda echoes the opinion of some of the victims themselves. In a letter written from prison to his wife, Camille Desmoulins stated: “I do not conceal from myself that I die victimized for a few pleasantries and for my friendship with Danton.”[9] Desmoulins attempted to make sense of what seemed nonsensical – his death at the hands of his friend Robespierre and his indictment for betraying the republic he had served devotedly – by tracing it to personal, rather than political, motives. In Wajda’s film, we see the same process at work. The personal is political, and the only way to make sense of Robespierre’s turn against his fellow revolutionaries and, in the case of Desmoulins, dear friends, is to stage a confrontation between two powerful but incompatible personalities.

In the final analysis, therefore, there is something satisfying about the movie’s unsatisfying causal narrative for Robespierre’s spiraling megalomania. I would be less likely to trust or recommend a movie that offered a fully convincing or simple causal explanation for the Terror, an event that challenged the comprehension of its contemporaries as well as generations of scholars ever since. It is instead the sense of tragic bewilderment with which the movie concludes that makes it one of the best representations available of the tumultuous Year II. The closing scenes – the gruesome images of Danton’s head being raised to the revolutionary crowd while his blood soaks into the hay beneath the scaffold, followed by Robespierre listening to a young boy’s recitation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen –  make that sense of sorrowful confusion all the more poignant: what, the audience is left to wonder, can possibly link the former with the latter?  It is hard to imagine a better site for beginning, or ending, a classroom conversation about the Terror, than the struggle to make sense of that tragic juxtaposition.

  1. Mieczyslaw Szporer, “Andzrej Wajda’s Reign of Terror:  Danton’s Polish Ambiance, “ Film Quarterly 37.2 (Winter 1983-1984): 27-33;. David Hunt, “Andrzej Wajda and the ‘Reign of the People,’” Radical History Review  28-20 (1984): 141-150; Adam Michnik, “The Wajda Question,” Salmagundi no. 128/129 (Fall 2000-Winter 2001):  137-179; see also Janina Falkowska, The Political Films of Andzrej Wajda:  Dialogism in Man of Marble, Man of Iron, and Danton (New York: Berghahn Books, 1996), especially chapter 3.
  2. Robert Darnton, “Danton and Double Entendre.”  The Kiss of Lamourette (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991).
  3. Norman Hampson outlines the financial case against Danton, along with a level-headed discussion of the possibility that he was a ‘double-agent’ in chapter 4 of his political biography, Danton (Oxford:  Basil Blackwell, 1978).
  4. Marisa Linton, “Fatal Friendships: The Politics of Jacobin Friendship,” French Historical Studies 31.1 (Winter 2008): 59.
  5. William Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). See also Sophia Rosenfeld’s review essay, “Thinking About Feeling,” French Historical Studies 32. 4 (2009): 697-706.
  6. These quotations come from the translated version of this 17 September 1793 law available at
  7. On understanding the Terror as an emotional phenomenon, see Reddy, op. cit., and Sophie Wahnich, La longue patience du peuple (Paris: Payot, 2008).
  8. Such a conversation could be supplemented with some of the excellent recent historiography on revolutionary justice, including Laura Mason, “The ‘Bosom of Proof’: Criminal Justice and the Renewal of Oral Culture during the French Revolution,” The Journal of Modern History 76 (2004): 29-61; Carla Hesse,”The Law of the Terror,” Modern Language Notes 114 (1999): 702-718; Suzanne Desan, The Family on Trial in Revolutionary France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); and excerpts from Robert Allen, Les Tribunaux criminels sous la Révolution et l’Empire, 1792-1811. (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2005).
  9. Quoted in Linton, p. 52.

Andrzei Wajda Director, Danton (1983) Color, France, Poland, West Germany, Les Films du Losange, Gaumont, TF1 Films Production, S.F.P.C., Film Polski, Running Time: 136 min.

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One thought on “La nuit de Varennes and Danton

  1. funny how you should mention that you wish Robespierre would’ve been played by a younger actor in Danton; i thought the same thing when i saw it!

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