The bloated, cocksure eponymous character of Danton makes for a puzzling fictional hero, especially in light of his historicity. Despite being an instrumental figure in both the storming of the Bastille and the subsequent orchestrating of new governing bodies (for which the populace adored him), this “man of the people” led a privileged existence amid widespread poverty thanks to frequent bribes; he was, paradoxically, an idol of the third estate residing quite unfairly in the first. But director Andrzej Wajda, re-envisioning the French Revolution as an outraged allegory after the Soviets declared martial law in his native Poland during 1980, relishes Danton’s earthiness and fallibility. This is not the case with the source material: Stanislawa Przybyszewska’s stage play The Danton Affair is unique in that it limns a highly sympathetic and rigidly democratic Maximilien Robespierre who has simply lost his way in the self-imposed role of Lord Protectorate. But Wajda, along with a brutally scene-chewing Gérard Depardieu, attempts to parlay Danton’s loveable hedonism into a political argument of a different tenor: Where the glacial Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak) demands perfection and decapitates those who fail to provide it, Danton seems to suggest that all are blemished and cannot be held accountable. Unfortunately, however, the filmmakers fail to absolve the latter just as Przybyszewska failed to absolve the former; history, after all, rejected both social perspectives, and dispatched their adherents.
There’s also the acute sense that Danton’s true achievement is as elaborate period pageantry; maneuvering beneath the surface of powdered wigs and ascots is a nebulous challenge. This climaxes at the denouement, where Robespierre’s post-execution grief over Danton seems abstrusely significant: The real President of the French Republic may have suspected the Sword of Damocles hovering over his own neck at this point in time, but Wajda reduces him from a draconian ideologue to a fevered, bed-ridden coward all too swiftly. These elements of the film are likely soaked in regional metaphor (particularly piquant was the decision to cast Frenchmen as Danton and his entourage whereas Robespierre and crew are played by Poles—necessitating abysmal dubbing), but explorations of the hardships of Poland’s Solidarity Movement are not always universally communicable or aesthetically gratifying. As with fellow countryman Krzysztof Kieślowski, Wajda’s auteurism is often enigmatically repellent to non-EU audiences. Still, both directors approach their material with peerless cinematographic vision, and Danton, for all its ethical reconditeness, achieves marvelously and meticulously designed bits of staging. In one scene Wajda grinningly lingers on Robespierre’s feet, standing on tenuous tippy-toes for illusionary stature while the man’s confident torso addresses the Convention Hall.
But despite its unnecessary (and erroneous) pedestal-placing of the titular statesman, the film does offer a fascinating revision of French Revolution rhetoric every bit as unflinching as that of Marat/Sade. Historically speaking, it’s not certain whether Danton and Robespierre truly butted heads over sharp differences in political ideology—aside from the former’s weariness over the ubiquity of guillotined corpses. Danton’s success is that it interprets their schism as a matter of clashing personalities and individual aesthetics, with Danton playing the stentorian, maenad-laden Dionysius to Robespierre’s shrunken, barren Apollo. And in both cases, the proposed solution to France’s newfound gubernatorial void is fittingly a crimson bath: Danton ends disagreements with a healthy glass of wine, Robespierre with the blood of the state’s antagonists. Danton and Robespierre are two mutually destructive forms of corruption wrestling for mythic dominance, and thus are also Trotsky and Lenin, JFK and LBJ, perhaps even George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.