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VENICE 2018 Out of Competition

Pierre Schoeller • Director

“The world wasn’t the same after the guillotine”


- VENICE 2018: French director Pierre Schoeller talked to Cineuropa about showing the French Revolution from the people’s perspective in One Nation, One King

Pierre Schoeller  • Director
(© La Biennale di Venezia - foto ASAC)

In his historical epic One Nation, One King [+see also:
film review
interview: Pierre Schoeller
film profile
, shown out of competition at the Venice Film Festival, with the help of recognisable faces such as Gaspard Ulliel and Adèle Haenel, director Pierre Schoeller focuses on the common people, proving that there was more to the French Revolution than Robespierre and Marat.

Cineuropa: There are so many characters in the film, but somehow you manage to find the time to tell their individual stories as well.
Pierre Schoeller:
 It’s the people’s perspective on the French Revolution. Each of them notices something different. The character played by Gaspard Ulliel, Basile, is the one that undergoes the biggest change. I used to say he was like a butterfly, transformed by the ongoing events. There is this idea that a revolution can produce a brand-new human being: the Soviet Union produced a Soviet man, and the French Revolution produced the sans-culottes. I didn’t want the revolution to be depicted only by the king, or Robespierre and Marat – all of these big, important figures we already know so well. I wanted to focus on the people. When they are gathered in the National Assembly, it’s almost as if the whole country is having a meeting.

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Is that why we don’t see more of Robespierre, played by Louis Garrel?
At first, I had this idea to make a film about the king, and Robespierre would have been one of the main characters. He was there from the very beginning and played different roles throughout the revolution. But he is so emblematic. There are many films about these events, like Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise, for example. But I always felt that “normal” people were pushed to the sidelines somehow – they were perceived as violent, childish and easily manipulated. I did a lot of research, but then decided to focus mostly on emotions and feelings. It was as if the whole country suddenly caught on fire! Just imagine what the situation would be if Putin were suddenly forced to leave. Putin more than Trump, because he still embodies power. If he suddenly disappeared, it would be the same. When you talk about human rights, it concerns everyone; when you talk about justice, it concerns everyone. People played an actual political role – not just an ideological one. This is what I wanted to show.

Did you ever stop to think why, out of so many political movements, this one turned out to be successful?
It was successful, and then it failed. It lasted seven years, and the first new concept was called “the regeneration of the kingdom”. This concept of the republic wasn’t born immediately. They wanted to redefine the principles of the kingdom and give it a new boost. Often, we have this impression that the French Revolution was all about killing the king, but it’s not true. At first, they just wanted to redesign his position. So there are different periods within the French Revolution, and not a single self-respecting historian would tell you that they all had the same ideas at the beginning. It’s not as simple as that. Clearly, you have the concept of sovereignty, dignity, equality and unity of the country. But it was a moment of uncertainty; it was open. And today, we are experiencing something similar as well. 

You decided to focus on women as well, and yet they are usually absent from the history books. How much information is there about their involvement?
There is some debate among historians as to whether the French Revolution was feminist or not, and they just don’t seem to agree. It took a long time for women to get the right to vote and for the republic to grow, but there was a lot of progress when it came to education and gender equality. What is certain, however, is that they were present and they took action. The Women’s March on Versailles, which I show, had incredible political repercussions. It compelled the king to return to Paris. The scene at the National Assembly, when they talk about their children and say they are hungry – all this is taken straight from the archives. I was wondering why their spokesman was a man, but it’s quite simple: in order to be listened to, they needed a man to talk to other men. So what we have here is this man, saying what women think. Every day, they would go out to check the price of bread and flour, which would change all the time. They were exposed to these problems because they had to feed their children. So you could even say that they had a greater political sensitivity than men. 

It’s interesting that some of these changes actually made people a bit scared. It’s almost as if they couldn’t quite believe it was happening.
We have to understand that things like that didn’t used to happen. It was not accepted that the king would be called a traitor, and then sentenced to death. I wanted to show that the world wasn’t the same after the guillotine. There was just this… silence. It was the moment when the die was cast and we still didn’t know what the outcome would be. But there was no going back any more.

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