Jean Renoir tackled some major themes throughout the socially, economically, and politically turbulent years of the 1930s. Eager to use the power of the cinema to do more than entertain, Renoir envisioned La Marseillaise as a rallying call for the people of France to shake off their proto-fascist leanings and remember their revolution and what it meant. In 1938, after the collapse of the Popular Front, the coalition of leftist parties that brought some political constancy, France plunged into back into its vulnerable instability. With this movie, neither particularly left nor right, Renoir tried to remind his countrymen that they were all French and in it together, that they had a glorious past that put them politically well ahead of most other European nations, that they had to remember why their forefathers fought, and that they should not sacrifice their work for the empty promises of a golden-tongued demagogue.
What better way to reinvigorate French national spirit than to retell the story of the French Revolution (while shrewdly avoiding extending the story into the Reign of Terror and the rise of Napoleon)? Told episodically, the movie relates the outbreak and progress of the revolution that would oust a monarchy and usher in a republic. Renoir pops in for visits with King Louis (Pierre Renoir), everyday peasants, aristocrats in exile, fugitives from the law, and, finally, a volunteer regiment from Marseilles that came to Paris to help defend their country from foreign invaders seeking to take advantage of France’s instability (an interesting parallel to the state of France after the fall of the Popular Front).
Renoir presents these soldiers, all common people, as the future of France. They embody everything that “liberty, equality, and fraternity” means. This isn’t an argument he’s making, a thesis he’s suggesting; it is, Renoir says, plain fact. And to embrace a new political ideology that would subvert and deny that history is unconscionable.
Despite Renoir’s political goals with the film, it never feels jingoistic, nor does he sacrifice historical accuracy. Aristocrats and the King aren’t painted as quite the treacherous villains we might expect. Renoir treats them somewhat sympathetically, aware that they didn’t create the system that exploited the poor anymore than the poor did; they just had the good luck to be born to a Comte or a Duc. They are bewildered by the changes going on around them as the revolution makes it clear that they are now irrelevant to the future and, maybe even worse, they were always irrelevant.
In the second half of the film Renoir uses the spreading of the tune, “La Marseillaise,” that would go on to become France’s national anthem. The soldiers from the South, enthusiastic about the future of freedom and equality, bring the song north, leaving it behind in each village they visit until finally reaching Paris where it becomes a hit among the people, eager for a stirring musical rendition of their revolutionary struggle. There are no notes more rousing, awe inspiring, more French, than the opening notes of France’s national anthem, “La Marseillaise.” One doesn’t have to be French for it to stir our emotions, just look at Humphrey Bogart using it to shut up a group of boisterous Nazis in Casablanca.
La Marseillaise is a wonderful film even ignoring the contemporary political tensions. It is a compelling and revelatory vision of the French Revolution, one of the most important revolutions in modern world history. Renoir’s even-handed approach to all parties saves the film from mindless propagandizing, instead giving us a pretty accurate account of what happened from multiple perspectives. This is one of those rare examples where history is privileged over cinematic conventions without sacrificing entertainment value.