Sog.: dall’omonimo spettacolo di Ariane Mnouchkine. Scen.: Ariane Mnouchkine. F.: Michel Lebon, Jean-Paul Meurisse, Bernard Zitzermann. M.: Françoise Belloux, Frédérique Mathieu, Françoise Clausse. Mus.: Michel Derouin. Int.: Théâtre du Soleil (Jean-Claude Bourbault, Philippe Caubère, Joséphine Derenne, Nicole Félix, Mario Gonzales, Louba Guertchikoff, Maxime Lombard, René Patrignani, Geneviève Rey-Penchenat, Jonathan Sutton). Prod.: Alexandre Mnouchkine, Georges Dancigers per Les Films Ariane. DCP. D.: 155’. Col.
The film displays the same characteristics as the play on which it is based, which is to say a reliance on a materialist conception of history (the representation of class conflict and the dual nature of the historical role played by the bourgeoisie in 1789) together with the use of traditional, popular forms of entertainment (barkers, acrobats, jugglers, farce and the mixing of genres and techniques, particularly in the use of puppets, dancers, circus announcers and the direct address of the audience…).
The film is faithful to the essential characteristics of the play, including the way in which it establishes a relationship between the actors and spectators. The theatrical staging devices employed are important in this regard and were conceived with this effect in mind. It is these characteristics carried over from the original work which prevent the film from being mere filmed theatre. The film faithfully follows the structure of the play and there are even scenes which replicate the form and effect of their theatrical equivalent; as, for example, when a handful of actors narrates the taking of the Bastille to small groups of spectators.
The film also allows us to glimpse backstage and strengthens the didactic intent of the original without a hint of smugness. The documentary approach is thus applied equally to its use of the theatre and to the explanation of History by means of a staged show.
Under difficult working conditions, given that the necessary funds were only obtained in time for the very last performances, the cameramen, editors, sound recordists and, naturally, Ariane Mnouchkine managed to produce an extremely faithful work. Errors are kept to an absolute minimum: the opening sequences begin slowly; the camera occasionally approaches a face for a close-up, revealing makeup that was only supposed to be seen at a distance (although perhaps here the mistake contributes an element of truth?)… But these are minor criticisms: 1789 is a milestone, and for 80% of the time, remains a film of great interest.
Daniel Sauvaget, “La Revue du cinéma – Image et Son”, n. 288-289, October 1974