#479: La Révolution (2020)
Subtlety is undead in this horror take on the French Revolution
Initial release: 2020 (One season, eight episodes)
Something sinister lurks in France. The spectre of revolution haunts its rulers. Starvation, poverty and cruelty are the order of the day. And somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, a young peasant girl is murdered. Her gruesome death would serve as the spark that ignites a rebellion — one of the most consequential rebellions in history.
Thus begins La Révolution, an eight-episode Netflix original from French filmmaker Aurélien Molas that depicts a supernatural take on the French Revolution, inspired by that famous Napoleon quote about history being a series of lies upon which everyone agrees. And indeed, there’s a sense throughout the show that we’re witnessing what the showrunners imagine might be their universe’s “true history” of the Revolution, beginning in 1787 with the disappearance of a French count and a subsequent series of murders of local peasant girls. The count’s daughter insists on looking into the most recent murder, as it’s triggered unrest among the populace, while her uncle has been taking steps to silence the truth about the killer’s identity — but why?
As the story unfolds we start to get a glimpse of something deeply rotten in the French nobility, a festering disease that increases aggression and a hunger for human flesh in exchange for increased strength and regenerative powers, marked by the blood turning a startling shade of dark blue — literally, blue blood for bluebloods, who go on to attack the peasantry, because subtlety is for wimps. The disease’s origins are unclear; its purpose in being intentionally spread among the nobility by a demonic King Louis XVI remains a mystery; its connection to the spectre of a mysterious masked girl who haunts the lead heroine’s mute, sign-language-using younger sister, goes largely unexplained. All we know is, the worst possible person to get an infusion of blue blood is the evil uncle’s son, and for it he becomes the show’s charismatic lead villain, a grinning, sadistic fuckboy who vamps across the set, delights in tormenting everyone around him, and sees the simmering rebellion to be a personal insult. (In a cast full of largely stock characters he is by far the most interesting one, especially because he begins the series rather meek as his gangrenous leg rots out from under him, a condition miraculously cured by the blue blood but so too is whatever humanity he had.)
Being a Netflix show, La Révolution suffers from that same lack of narrative weight that afflicts most shows made for streaming platforms, as they’re intended to be binged in one go. While the show makes the effort to establish each episode as a chapter in a larger narrative, the end result still feels narratively disjointed as we swing around from the countess’ daughter to her younger sister to the evil uncle to his top goon to his eviler son to an anachronistically young Joseph-Ignace Guillotin to — well, you get the picture. And while it rather explicitly indicates it’s not meant to be taken as serious history, it still has some weird shit to say about actual history, such as implying that the guillotine was invented because there were too many cannibal nobles to decapitate effectively with just swords (to say nothing of the completely absurd notion of the modern French flag being a white sheet covered in red and blue blood.) To top it all off, Netflix opted not to greenlight a second season, meaning all of the lingering mysteries and the aftermath of the final episode will go untold and unexplained.
Still, though, this is a visually stunning show, well directed with sometimes stunning lighting work, excellent period costumes and great set design, with the filthy streets of 18th-century France given particular attention (though it’s clear they only had a couple streets built for the set, as many scenes seem to take place near or underneath the same archway.) Good use of practical effects and careful editing help bring a bit of chunky salsa gore to an already grime-encrusted outing.
While La Revolution isn’t revolutionary in any sense of the word — too silly, too incoherent, with only a few standouts in the cast — it’s still a decent watch for fans of historical horror, a genre that I can personally tell you does not get as much attention as it deserves.