'One Nation, One King': Film Review | Venice 2018

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
A story with neither head nor tail.

Pierre Schoeller's film about the French Revolution has a huge cast that includes Gaspard Ulliel, Adele Haenel, Olivier Gourmet, Louis Garrel, Niels Schneider and Denis Lavant.

Politically woke plebs in honey-colored light topple their divine ruler while blowing glass, doing laundry and having babies in One Nation, One King (Un peuple et son roi), a wannabe epic about the French Revolution that’s so bad it almost makes you wish France were still a kingdom. Inexplicably selected for an out-of-competition slot at the prestigious Venice Film Festival, this creation from French director Pierre Schoeller (the well-received political drama The Minister) cuts back and forth between the country’s king and its commoners but finds practically no heart and even less tragedy in either storyline. A Parisian casting agent’s entire Rolodex worth of famous faces, including Gaspard Ulliel, Louis Garrel and Denis Lavant, might ensure a decent opening in France, where it comes out Sept. 26. Though presold to several territories, internationally its chances are about as decent as stepping away from the guillotine with your neck intact. 

On July 14, 1789, the crenellations of the Bastille towers were demolished, which allows the summer sun to hit the faces of the members of the poor working class in the street below, literally illuminating their faces. They include a glassblower nicknamed "Uncle" (Olivier Gourmet); his buxom wife (Noemie Lvovsky); and the washing women Francoise (Adele Haenel) and her sister, Margot (Izia Higelin). Though of lowly station, they gather each evening to declaim their thoughts on the latest political events around a table lit only by candlelight. 

Francoise, whose catchphrase will become “There are no two ways to be free,” is especially vocal about the fact that the fight for egalite should also include women’s rights, so it’s no surprise to see her face again at the Women’s March in October of that year, when, during a mad rainstorm, a loud fishmonger from the Halles market (Celine Salette), leads a group of protesters to Versailles to demand bread, wheat and rights. Around the same time, King Louis XVI (Laurent Lafitte, sporting a royal gut), signs the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" with a single tear rolling down his chubby cheek for maximum melodramatic effect. It was one of the court’s many concessions designed to (hopefully) keep the monarchy intact and the republican fervor at bay, though the eventual outcome is, of course, well-known.

Even in the early going, many of film’s failings are already in full view. Political ideas are reduced to slogans and there is no sense of the extent to which either the workers or their sovereign really understand politics in general or France’s specific situation at that time. Each single character has only a few short scenes, so they are all reduced to cliches with next to no character development. Also not helping is Schoeller’s tendency for broad overstatement rather than nuance, from the sun coming down to street level for the first time and the French monsoon that makes all the marching women look like drowned rats to the close-up of Louis tearfully signing the declaration, bringing to mind nothing less than the famous — and famously tacky — painting The Crying Boy from Giovanni Bragolin. 

Things become even more ridiculous when the National Assembly is created and people such as Robespierre (Garrel in wire-rimmed glasses), Marat (Lavant, wearing a costume with an eye-catching panther print) and Saint-Just (Niels Schneider) take turns speechifying as the self-appointed representatives of the nation try to figure out what France wants to be and what it should do next. Again, there’s little sense of background or context here, reducing the speakers to men in foppish wigs spouting big ideas in tiny speeches (since most of their discours are, of course, truncated to help cover as much ground as possible). Schoeller then reduces the mostly illiterate working classes, including Uncle and Francoise, to rabid political groupies who seemingly attend each and every meeting of the Assembly as if they were the period’s equivalent of a Shawn Mendes concert. And like the Canadian singer’s most fervent fans, the spectators scream and shout throughout the spectacle they've come to witness, even though it is unlikely they have full grasp of what is even being discussed. 

Though first billed, it takes a while for Ulliel’s Basile to make an appearance. His long-haired, long-ago washed chicken thief turned lover of Francoise feels looks like a variation on the role he played in Jacquou le Croquant. Basile has perhaps the most dynamic development of all the characters, going from being a convicted criminal to someone who is freed by a priest, follows the king and finally ends up with the revolutionaries. As with the other characters, however, there’s little sense of any emotional dimension or psychological texture, so a postcoital bedroom scene with a near-naked Francoise enveloped by golden light, for example, looks more like an intentionally over-the-top cover of a cheap romance novel rather than the glowing aftermath of the union of two familiar-feeling people in love. 

The main problem is that it’s never clear what the raison d’etre is for this film, its new angle and singular point of view. It cuts between different storylines for no apparent reason, culminating in the unlikely back and forth between a glassblowing apprenticeship and an endless roll-call vote in the assembly to decide on the fate — death, banishment or imprisonment? — of their royal ruler. Potentially interesting episodes, such as the women’s march, the planting of “freedom trees” or the massacre on the Champs de Mars, are treated hastily and superficially, with the film apparently trying to cover as many of the events that occurred over the course of five years as possible in just two hours. The supposedly tragic death of one of the characters only serves to underline just how little we as an audience care for the people onscreen, despite the energy and hard work of performers such as Haenel, who perhaps comes closest to moving the audience in a confrontation with Lafayettee. However, most of the time, Schoeller seems more interested in details like making sure the many songs that are sung are historically accurate — unlike in, say, Les Miserables — rather than in making audiences care about what happens to any of the characters or the country they live in. 

Shot on many of the actual locations where the story happened, the writer-director manages to be authentic in terms of his visuals and Anais Romand’s costumes are certainly a wonder to behold. But without any palpable sense of emotion or more than a passing understanding of how politics influenced people’s thinking and behavior, what is the point?

When the king finally walks up to the scaffold, a guard tells him to be “careful or you’ll slip.” In a Monthy Python sketch, this line would have been hilarious. Here, in a film that’s dead serious and in which the characters never come alive, it feels like the director himself slipped and fell way before he got to the beheading.

Production companies: Archipel 35, Studiocanal, France 3 Cinema, Les Films du Fleuve
Cast: Gaspard Ulliel, Adele Haenel, Olivier Gourmet, Louis Garrel, Izia Higelin, Noemie Lvovsky, Celine Sallette, Denis Lavant, Johan Libereau, Andrzej Chyra, Julia Artamonov, Laurant Lafitte, Stephande De Groodt, Niels Schneider, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing
Director-writer: Pierre Schoeller
Producer: Denis Freyd 
Director of photography: Julien Hirsch
Production designer: Thierry Francois
Costume designer: Anais Romand
Editor: Laurence Briaud
Music: Philippe Schoeller
Casting: Aurelie Guichard
Sales: Studiocanal
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)

In French
No rating, 121 minutes