5 Revolutionary Movies to Celebrate Bastille Day

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Woman holding French flag | Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

Bastille Day, France’s annual celebration that commemorates the storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the French Revolution, is almost here. In case you need to refresh your memory of basic world history: On July 14, 1789, a group of French revolutionaries stormed a prison in Paris that was an infamous symbol of royal authority. While as far as prison breaks go it was fairly small — only seven prisoners liberated — it is widely acknowledged to be the catalyzing event that kicked off the French Revolution, led to the overthrow of Louis XVI, and generally transformed the world with the revolutionary ideals of Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité.

This year, July 14 will mark the 228th anniversary of this momentous occasion in the history of France and the world. While le quatorze juillet is a national holiday in France that will be publicly celebrated with parades, fireworks, and other festivities, no matter where you live, you can always hold your own private Bastille celebration by watching some of the great movies that have been made about this time period.

Interestingly, there is a surprising dearth of films that deal directly with the historical events of the French Revolution. However, there are many movies that are set in this general time period, as well as films in which the events of the French Revolution play some type of role in the plot. Keeping that in mind, here are five successful movies that involve the French Revolution.

5. Danton (1983)

Starring the renowned French actor Gérard Depardieu as the title character, this film is set during the infamous “Reign of Terror” period of the French Revolution, when many so-called enemies of the revolution were executed by guillotine. Directed by Academy Award-winning Polish director Andrzej Wajda, the film tells the story of Georges Danton, one of the original leaders of the French Revolution, who was later executed on the orders Maximilien de Robespierre.

While the film is ostensibly about the French Revolution, it is also the director’s less-than-subtle critique of the Soviet-backed Communist government that controlled Poland at the time of the film’s release. Notably, the villains in the film are played by Poles, while Danton and his allies are all played by Frenchmen. Danton has an 89 percent approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.

4. Marie Antoinette (2006)

While any film that is set in the time period of the French Revolution and uses a 1980s-era soundtrack should obviously not be regarded as historically accurate, this Sofia Coppola-directed film does give viewers a general concept of the luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by the French royalty at the time. For a country that was going through a time of widespread deprivation, the decadence of the royal court was regarded as especially offensive to revolutionaries.

Kirsten Dunst plays the title character who becomes the Queen of France when her husband ascends to the throne as Louis XVI. While most of the film covers the time period before the start of the French Revolution, the film ends with the royal family fleeing the palace of Versailles to avoid a mob of angry citizens. Marie Antoinette received mixed reviews from the critics when it was released. However, the film won an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Costume Design in 2007 and has since acquired a loyal following of fans.

3. La Marseillaise (1938)

Directed by legendary French director Jean Renoir, La Marseillaise tells the story of the start of the French Revolution via a faux news documentary format. Like many films about the French Revolution, La Marseillaise contrasts the decadent lifestyles of the French royals with the poverty of ordinary citizens. The film covers some of the key events that occurred during the early part of the French Revolution and includes portrayals of some of the famous historical figures of the time. However, Renoir’s epic ultimately focuses more on how the events were viewed by the ordinary citizens of France. This classic film currently has an 88 percent approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.

2. Jefferson in Paris (1995)

The time period immediately before the start of the French Revolution is the setting for this Merchant Ivory production about Thomas Jefferson’s stint as Ambassador of the United States in France. While much of the film focuses on Jefferson’s relationship with a slave named Sally Hemmings, this historical drama also portrays the root causes of the French Revolution by showing the contrast between the opulent French royal court and the country’s poverty-stricken peasants.

Besides starring Nick Nolte as Thomas Jefferson and Thandie Newton as Sally Hemmings, the film’s impressive cast also includes Gwyneth Paltrow, James Earl Jones, and Vincent Cassel. While the film received mixed reviews from the critics, it also garnered a Palme d’Or nomination at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in 1995.

1. That Night in Varennes (1982)

Based on a novel by French author Catherine Rihoit, That Night in Varennes mixes historical fact and fiction. The main story revolves around a meeting between several famous historical figures from the French Revolution era, including Restif de la Bretonne, Giacomo Casanova, Thomas Paine, and Sophie de la Borde. The group is following King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as the royal couple is attempting to flee the increasingly hostile revolutionaries in Paris. While the French royals’ failed escape is based on the real “Flight to Varennes” event in 1791, the meeting between the other historical figures is completely fictionalized.

However, the fictionalized meeting provides a framework for plenty of philosophical debates between the various factions involved in the French Revolution. Like Jefferson in Paris, That Night in Varennes also garnered a Palme d’Or nomination. The film is also notable for its impressive cast of international stars, including Harvey Keitel, who plays revolutionary philosopher Thomas Paine.

Follow Nathanael on Twitter @ArnoldEtan_WSCS