18th-Century Quest: La Révolution Française (1989)

16

YOU GUYS. THIS WAS SO GOOD. La Révolution Française is a two-part film made in 1989 for the bicentennial of the French Revolution. It had some major stars, including Jane Seymour as Marie-Antoinette and Sam Neill as General Lafayette. And it bombed, and so it’s been totally off the radar and scarce. But it’s SHOCKINGLY good and, most importantly, tried REALLY hard to be historically accurate. And these may be some of the most accurate 18th-century costumes I have EVER seen on film. EVER.

I think the big problem at the time, aside from an apparent lack of interest in the bicentennial, was the fact that this is two, 2.5 hour films. Luckily, now you can think of it as a 5-hour miniseries, which really isn’t so bad. It would be hard to sit through all of this in the theater, but luckily you can now chunk it up however you like and watch it from the luxury of your couch.

The film tries to tell a balanced story of the French Revolution, from just before the fall of the Bastille in 1789, through the fall of Robespierre in 1794. It focuses on Louis XIV and Marie-Antoinette, General Lafayette, and revolutionaries Desmoulins, Danton, and Robespierre. Although the film tries to be balanced, you do end up getting a clearer view and larger focus on those three revolutionaries. Of course, some characters die or go into exile about halfway through things, which removes them from the story.

In general, you follow the internal politics of the revolution (in an interesting way, not boring!) and also see the fall of the Bastille, the writing of the constitution and the Rights of Man, the women’s march on Versailles, the aftermath of the royals’ attempted flight to Varennes, the execution of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, and the Reign of Terror. None of those things are fully fleshed out, however, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It would be hard to cover them all in detail, and this hits enough of the highlights but connects them logically. I’d say the only thing I felt was omitted was the effects on the aristocracy. You see what happened to the royals and the revolutionaries (and through them, some of the common people), but you don’t really see much about the aristocracy.

In terms of performances, I’d say Jane Seymour was very good as Marie-Antoinette (even if she was a bit too out-of-touch in the earliest scenes), Jean-François Balmer was very good as Louis XVI (nice to see him not portrayed as a total idiot, just, as a guy not totally cut out for the role and unsure how to proceed), and Sam Neill as General Lafayette acquitted himself well. I’m not sure if Seymour and Neill’s dialogue was dubbed into French, but if not, the two had REALLY good accents. The standout, however, was Klaus Maria Brandauer as Danton — a really riveting performance.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

Klaus Maria Brandauer as Danton

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

Jane Seymour as Marie-Antoinette

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

Sam Neill as General Lafayette

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

Jean-François Balmer as Louis XVI

But let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we?

The Costumes in La Revolution Francaise:

Oh, the costumes.  They were SERIOUSLY AMAZING. Like, SO SPOT ON. They were designed by Catherine Leterrier, who has done a lot of French film, including Coco Before Chanel and The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc.

I had literally ONE quibble, and that was:

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

Desmoulins (left) was a bit too mullet-y for my taste. Yes, he has curly hair, but it was a bit too layered in back.

Otherwise, please allow me to rave:

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

Let’s get the party started with the opening scene featuring Marie-Antoinette and Fersen (right) dancing.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

This dress was lovely, as was her HAIR.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

This may be the costume, in which case it was made by Atelier Caraco Canezou. Or, they may have made this copy of the costume. Unclear.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

Another shot of the Atelier Caraco Canezou dress.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

This was probably the standout dress, but there were still lots of other things to get excited about.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

For example, this printed number of Polignac (center, with hand on cow, as one does), as well as Marie-Antoinette’s chemise gown (right). Also, please to note puppy with purple streaks in his/her hair!

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

There’s a decent amount of scenes involving Lucile Desmoulins (pictured) and Gabrielle Danton, both of whom had multiple smart little numbers.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

Marie-Antoinette’s printed gown (right) was really pretty. Here’s she’s emoting with the Princesse de Lamballe.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

I didn’t love the look of Claudia Cardinale, the actress who played the Duchesse de Polignac. Nonetheless…

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

THIS STRIPEY REDINGOTE WAS SO GOOD!!!!

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

SUCH STRIPEY GOODNESS!

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

Completely matching outfits on Marie-Therese…

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

… and Marie-Antoinette. Note the tricolor fringe at the bottom of each petticoat!

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

They also did a great job showing older, sadder Marie-Antoinette and family.

Now, we need to talk about two very important topics: Hats and Hair.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

LOVE this hat on Marie-Antoinette.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

Another great Marie-Antoinette hat.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

But wait, it’s ANOTHER great Marie-Antoinette hat!

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

Check out this green and pink hat coming out of the carriage. That’s either Lamballe or Mme Elisabeth. I may need to make this. The stripey yellow hat also coming out of the carriage isn’t half bad itself.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

One of many fabulous caps worn by various ladies.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

Did I mention that in nearly every crowd scene, there were fabulous hats? Check that green one on the left.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

Gabrielle Danton had FABULOUS frizzy hair.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

Marie-Antoinette’s hair also kicked some serious ass.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

But here’s what makes me put this movie into the top 1% of late 18th century costume: you see the back of that hair on the right? YES. THEY GOT 1780s HAIR RIGHT. THAT IS WHAT THE BACK OF THESE FRIZZY STYLES LOOKS LIKE.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

More back-of-the-hairstyle done RIGHT, which it hardly ever is.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

Marie-Antoinette on trial. Very good older, sadder hair.

Now, yes, most of the main characters in this are boys, so we should talk about them too.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

Sam Neill as Lafayette (right). There are people more expert than me in military uniforms, so I’ll let them comment. I just want to note how great the wigs are! There was a wide variety of styles, but all were appropriate to the 1780s.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

Louis XVI. Love the embroidery on the jacket & waistcoat.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

Robespierre (center) is shown as the semi-dandy that he was.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

Loved this scene of Robespierre (right) powdering his wig. That’s a hand powder bellows in his hand. His wig is on a wig stand.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

Robespierre had a faaaaaabulous green stripey suit, and these amazing tinted glasses. Does anyone know if he actually was known for wearing tinted glasses, or is that a random thing on the part of the designers? Okay, just found this discussion — apparently some sources mention this.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

More green stripey goodness.

La Revolution Francaise (1989) costume movie review

The only slightly cheesy guy was Saint-Just, a very gung-ho, “let’s chop off everyone’s head” revolutionary. His hair was cheesy, plus he was often wearing large-ish silver hoop earrings (like, the size of a quarter). The hell? Does anyone know if that has any basis in reality?

You can watch the whole thing on YouTube, and I highly recommend that you do.

Tags

About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

16 Responses

  1. Elisabeth

    The Atelier Caraco Canzeou made the dress. You can check here: http://www.ateliercaraco.com/main_fr.html
    (on the top: realisations, then on the left: spectacles, then on the right: La révolution Française on the scroll bar).
    This movie is my absolutely fav (with Barry Lyndon): it was on the TV for the Bicentenary (1989), I was 8 but fall in love with it.
    Me? fascinated by the le late 18th c? Nooooooo!

    Reply
  2. Kendra

    I know, right? I’d seen images of Jane Seymour as Marie Antoinette floating around, but other than that, didn’t really have any clear ideas!

    Reply
  3. clara

    A friend of mine that studies the period recommended this to me but I could not find it until now. Everything looks so gorgeous!
    (Also I might need to ask her on Saint-Just and the earrings, just in case)

    Reply
  4. Shawna

    Looks awesome! We need to have a marathon viewing party. With champagne and strawberries. Who’s up for it?

    Reply
  5. CitoyenneClark

    Yeah, several sources mention that Saint-Just wore earrings. Some of the drawings/paintings of him show them…he was kinda cheesy.

    Reply
      • Julia

        It’s not quite clear, however, whether he really wore earrings or whether this was part of the image of “cheesy villain” his political ennemies wanted to present of him after his death.

        Reply
    • NuitsdeYoung

      Erm, no. There is one in-period red chalk/pastel profile drawing which may be him which shows a large earring. This was copied in 19C history paintings as depicting him, but the sitter’s identity is by no means certain.
      The portraits which are definitely him do not show earrings, and indeed, his hairstyles would tend to hide earrings, which takes away the point of wearing them.
      Philippe Le Bas definitely wore earring/s, though.
      Interestingly, a biographer has pointed out that the 19C depictions of Saint-Just with earrings emerge when they were increasingly feminising his image (as in 19C, earrings were more exclusively a woman’s item of jewellery).
      The pastel portrait of Saint-Just which had belonged to Élisabeth Le Bas (née Duplay) is the best contemporary portrait of him (Musée Carnavalet). Not remotely “cheesy’, whatever you mean by that.

      Reply
  6. Diana R

    Thank you for bringing this to my attention. It is now on my “Watch later” list on YouTube. Hurray!

    Reply
  7. Michael

    Another thing about this film is the lace trim on everything is sublime. I wonder if it was antique..

    Reply
  8. Mr Elton

    Okay, late here, but had to comment. I remember watching this on tv back in the early 90s (my early teens-self had a crush on Jane Seymour!) and it was soo long. Everything was in English but the French version (on youtube) is actually better. I think it was a miniseries but started out as a feature length film. There are more Marie-Antoinette-scenes in the longer one. Anyway, loads of inspiration for a new Robespierre-style wig! (Trivia: the Dauphin and Princesse Royale were played by Jane Seymour’s real kids.)

    Reply
  9. Julia

    I have loved the film (or series) since I came to love the French Revolution. I still adore Andzej Severin as Robespierre, I think this was the first time that he was actually shown as the very humane, sensitive and struggeling revolutionary he was (except for my favourite depiction “La Terreur et la Vertu”). And yes, Klaus-Maria Brandauer is an outstanding actor. But when it comes to historical correctness, I am afraid that the series looses some of it towards the end. The presentation of 8-10th Thermidor is false, simple as that. It rushes through events, presenting them as if they happened in one day (it were three days, actually), just to give Danton the final word. Meh! Apart from that, the presentation of Saint-Just was not very much in line with historical research (in fact, he was very reflective, more moderate and far more cooperative than Robespierre).

    Reply
  10. raphaelrueck89

    I really enjoy reading your appreciation of the costumes in several films I also analyse for my MA thesis on period pieces set btw. 1789 and 1871 (approxiamtely the life-time of the german count Fürst Pückler who I’m interested in). Reading this I just noticed that you meant Louis XVI and not XIV. Oops, I get confused with the period sometimes too…
    Best regards
    Raphaël

    Reply

Feel the love

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.