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VENICE 2018 Out of Competition

Review: One Nation, One King

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- VENICE 2018: Pierre Schoeller paints a captivating and uneven fresco portraying the early years of the French Revolution

Review: One Nation, One King
Adèle Haenel and Gaspard Ulliel in One Nation, One King

Unveiled out of competition at the 75th Venice Film Festival, One Nation, One King [+see also:
trailer
interview: Pierre Schoeller
film profile
]
, the 3rd feature film by Pierre Schoeller (acclaimed for Versailles [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Geraldine Michelot
interview: Pierre Schoeller
film profile
]
and The Minister [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Pierre Schoeller
film profile
]
) is the ultimate embodiment of great filmmaking ambition and truly challenging film-production, on a European scale. Wishing to explore an event as staggering and complex as the French Revolution in its full magnitude and in all its intense historic detail, all the while endeavouring to bestow the work with an epic and novelesque air, requires colossal financial investment. In fact, the final amassed budget of €16.9m, though lavish by Old Continent standards, is miniscule compared to what would be needed today to fully bring to life the feverish thirst for liberty which took hold of France at the end of the 18th century.

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Faced with such a tall order - one that has pushed a great number of filmmakers of the past wishing to tackle the subject to reduce their angle of attack (notably Wajda with Danton) - the French director has held his ground, merely shortening the time-period covered by the film, which begins in April 1978, three months before the storming of the Bastille, journeying right on through to the spectacular death of Louis XVI, guillotined in a public square on 21 January 1793. Schoeller propels the viewer into a veritable vortex of crucial moments in time and a whirlwind of characters brimming with colour. He gives us the birth of the National Assembly, the March of the Women from among the hunger-stricken French people on Versailles - the palace which the King (Laurent Lafitte) is forced to leave, headed for Paris after signing the abolition of feudalism and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen -, the escape of the sovereign, his subsequent capture in Varennes, the birth of a constitutional monarchy and the very many ferocious debates (which overflow into the streets in markedly bloody fashion) which ultimately lead the French to vote for the execution of Louis XVI. These incredible events are taken straight out of the pages of French History and devoured voraciously by One Nation, One King, which paints a rich and captivating picture of this period in time, peppered with an array of remarkable sequences, notably (but not exclusively) those which take place between the parliamentary benches, the home of fiery debate, where Robespierre (Louis Garrel), Marat (Denis Lavant), Saint-Just (Niels Schneider) and Barnave (Pierre-François Garel) all make their names, among others.

The problem, however, is the director-scriptwriter’s decision to invent and include characters from among the proletariat, who act as witnesses and play an active role in the Revolution (in a similar vein to the novel, Taking the Bastille (Ange Pitou) by Alexandre Dumas). His portrayals of the master glassmaker and his wife (Olivier Gourmet and Noémie Lvovsky), of the washerwomen (Adèle Haenel and Izïa Higelin), of the herring seller (Céline Sallette) and of the vagabond (Gaspard Ulliel), for example, are all very uneven (and these characters all seem a bit too well-turned out).

Many of the director’s bolder choices (songs sung acapella by the film’s characters, and the omnipresence of music, notably at the beginning of the story) also turn out to be somewhat counter-productive and add a superfluous layer of lyricism – which is more cumbersome than anything else - to a cinematic soup which is already boiling over. These strong inclinations are, however, one of the defining features of the film, from the rather lovely use of natural lighting in instances of chiaroscuro, to the masterful conveyed ellipses of time. This all combines to form a style which does take some time to get used to and which some viewers may find bombastic, but which is ultimately the epitome of a revolution.

One Nation, One King was produced by Archipel 35 and co-produced by France 3 Cinéma, StudioCanal (who is handling international sales) and Belgian firm Films du Fleuve.

(Translated from French)

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