La Marseillaise (1938)

Director: Jean Renoir


By Marilyn Ferdinand

July 14 was Bastille Day, France’s Fourth of July. The hubby and I keep this holiday because we get to run around wearing berets, drink French wine, and play chop the head off the doll with his homemade guillotine. This year, we took in La Marseillaise, which the University of Chicago’s DOC Films student film society thoughtfully programmed. If you look at films that deal with the French Revolution, you are likely to find biopics such as Marie Antoinette (1938) or elitist escapism such as The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934). Nothing wrong with either of these approaches, of course. But only La Marseillaise gives anything close to a comprehensive accounting of this extraordinary period in French history, as well as one that does not swoon over the aristocracy and relegate the real movers of this event—the revolutionaries—to the roles of extras.

Jean Renoir made La Marseillaise to counter Nazi/fascist/royalist sympathies in France in the years just prior to the outbreak of World War II. The film was allied with the Popular Front, a coalition of leftist political parties and trade unions in France, and received some of its funding from donations from the public. Given these alliances, it’s entirely understandable that the more polemical parts of the film would skew in favor of the People. But any film named La Marseillaise must first and foremost be seen as the work of a French patriot who chose to close the film with the line, “Vive la liberté.”

The cast is grouped into five categories in the opening credits: The Court, The Civil Authorities and The Military, The Aristocrats, The Marseilles Townspeople, and The People. The film itself is roughly organized into five chapters in this same order, and spans the years 1789, when a constitutional monarchy was established, through 1792, when the king and his followers tried to stage a counterrevolution that eventually resulted in the complete overthrow of the monarchy. The events are placed in context by showing the self-indulgent, food-loving Louix XVI (the director’s brother Pierre Renoir) receiving news of the fall of the Bastille while he lounges in bed eating a sumptuous “snack.” He asks whether this means the country is in revolt. No, says his emissary, La Rochefoucauld (William Aguet), it means revolution!

The next scene (The Court) takes place in the south of France, near the town of Marseilles. An older man, nicknamed Cabri (Édouard Delmont), observes a flock of pigeons pecking at the ground. He places a stone in his slingshot, swings the rudimentary weapon overhead, and lets fly the stone. The pigeons scatter as Cabri runs to claim his quarry. Unfortunately, he is poaching on the land, and is caught. His trial pits one aristocrat, who is lenient with poachers because he thinks the punishment (the galleys) does not fit the crime, against another, who believes in upholding the law to prevent the lower classes from extending their privileges. While the two argue, one of his fellow prisoners frees Cabri’s tied hands, and he escapes out a window and hides in the mountains. There he meets two men, also on the run for their political agitation on the docks of Marseilles—the mischevious Bomier (Edmond Ardisson) and the gentlemanly Arnaud (Andrex). Cabri encourages them to continue their fight for future generations of French commoners. The young men return to Marseilles on the advice of a priest who has been supplying them with provisions to take the cause of the People to the king himself.

La%20Mar.jpgMoving to The Civil Authorities and The Military, a gathering of Marseillais gather to discuss their options when they receive word that the king is maintaining his right of veto over the nation’s constitution and plans to use military force to quell rebellion. A rousing speech by Arnaud encourages the townspeople to gather and take the forts surrounding Marseilles. When they mount a primitive attack using a Trojan Horse scheme, they meet no resistance. Arnaud meets the commander of the fortress, St. Laurent (Aimé Clariond), and explains to him the meaning of nation.

During The Aristocrats section, we meet St. Laurent again, an exile in Germany, who explains to his fellow aristocrats that this fellow, Arnaud, gave him a glimpse of France’s future. His fellow aristocrats dismiss him and hail the Prussian Army, set to march on the French commoners and stabilize Louis’ reign.

Fighting against the Prussians is intense. Eventually, sections from all over France choose delegations to go to Paris to petition the king and the National Assembly to uphold the accomplishments of the Revolution, or force their acquiescence, if necessary. The Marseilles Townspeople segment shows enlistment in the section at the Marseilles Jacobin Club, where Bomier hears a man singing a song in the next room with which he is unfamiliar. It supposedly came from fighters in the Rhineland. Bomier thinks it betrays the rules of harmony and that it will never catch on. In fact, before the delegation from Marseilles leaves for Paris, the song is on everyone’s lips, including Bomier’s. As they move through the country on foot and eventually arrive in Paris, the song goes with them—and becomes “La Marseillaise” in their honor. Soon, events move rapidly to the final showdown of the king’s defenders at the Tuileries palace and The People. The film ends with French citizens fighting for their freedom against the Prussians in the Battle of Valmy, one nation of citizens having defeated the tyranny of the monarchy.

There is a fair amount of speechifying in this film, but much of it is really wonderful. Listen to this woman denounce the crimes of the king, queen, and National Assembly in a truly charismatic performance, though I’m not certain who played the role. There are also a good many comic moments, courtesy mainly of the portly Javel (Paul Dullac), whose intense dislike and distrust of the clergy make for some good moments. Bomier, too, has a boyish charm to match his Prince Valiant hairstyle. He leaves his tearful mother’s side to go to Paris as an adventurer, not as a mature man with a strong sense of duty. Our hearts go with him.

The film has a neorealist atmosphere. Although it is set in the past, the street scenes look very alive and were, no doubt, shot on location. The toppled Bastille, a pile of rubble on which the children of Paris play, is quite a sight. The Champs-Élysées, a fashionable boulevard even then, is a mere dirt road. The aristocrats jeer at the citizens marching to Paris’ Jacobin Club in a realistic approximation of protesters on either side of an issue shouting at each other in the streets. The battles are prepared properly, with citizen soldiers crudely armed and moving by stealth. Extras die rather dramatically, but the combat is believably chaotic and thrilling to watch.


Pierre Renoir (not shown above) is rather sympathetic as Louis, seemingly bewildered by events swirling around him, not truly a harsh man but rather a soft and simple one who would have been content to set the gourmet tastes of the country rather than its policies. Lise Delamare as Marie Antoinette is seen as being the ruthless brains behind the throne, perhaps an understandable characterization given France’s troubles ahead with Germany and Austria in the coming war. She seems very Germanic, despite her sumptuous French gowns (designed by Coco Chanel). All she is missing is a thin moustache to twist between her dainty, dastardly fingers.

La Marseillaise lacks the irony that make Renoir’s Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game true masterpieces, and its pacing is a bit uneven. Nonetheless, Renoir manages to create a feeling that one is actually witnessing the French Revolution. Because this film was intended for a French audience, details that would illuminate some of the actions for audiences in other countries are not explained. No matter. This movie communicates quite a lot. Vive la Revolution et vive Renoir!

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