The French Revolution Storms onto Netflix

Epic, graphic, fantastical, and staunchly modern, La Révolution will be available on Netflix in France and the United States on October 16. The new series offers a Tarantino-esque revamp of French history and the birth of democracy.
© Netflix

The words Ni roi ni maître (“No king nor master”) are painted across the walls of a burning castle. In the main courtyard, the snow-covered cobblestones are littered with corpses, while the wrought iron gates are lined with severed heads. A green-suited nobleman tries to flee, but is caught by a mysterious horseman and decapitated to the deafening music of electric harpsichords as his dark, navy-blue blood spurts across the snow. Anyone would think this ultraviolent scene was filmed in a Hollywood studio; in fact, it was filmed just outside Paris at the Château de Fontainebleau.

This sequence was dreamed up by a crime writer from Tarbes in southwest France. “Christophe Gans’ movie about the Beast of Gévaudan, Brotherhood of the Wolf, had a lasting impact on me,” says Aurélien Molas, 35. “I loved the tricorn hats and how Gans wanted to create something very graphic while staying true to the swashbuckling genre. Quentin Tarantino’s work and the liberties he takes with history, particularly in Inglourious Basterds, were also a major influence.”

La Révolution offers an alternate history, just like in Molas’ two other influences – Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and the Korean series Kingdom. Starting with a specific historical context (the French people oppressed by the nobility), the series then swerves into a fictional narrative of a mysterious virus infecting the elite and a secret brotherhood at war against privileged society. “I didn’t want to start the plot with events we all know, such as the Storming of the Bastille. Instead, I created a new world in order to gradually align my fictional story with the historical facts.”

From the Bastille to Occupy Wall Street

The series is set across three chronological seasons and begins in 1787. “The Revolution has not yet begun, but ideas from the Enlightenment and rural protest movements have already started to spread,” says the screenwriter. In the fictional county of Montargis, the farmers and laborers chant anachronistic, 19th-century anarchist slogans and quote “L’Internationale,” a left-wing anthem actually written during the Paris Commune of 1871 almost a century after the Storming of the Bastille. This fusion of revolutionary movements helps to create the alternative history.

“The series’ protagonists uphold the founding principles of our democracy – men and women are born free and equal in rights – and their struggle, that of the French Revolution, still resonates today,” says Molas. “I wanted to write a series that adopts the perspective of this young generation battling against the world’s biggest glass ceiling: the monarchy and social privilege.” Through this approach, a character clothed in rags pre-empts the Occupy Wall Street movement launched in Manhattan in 2011 when he declares: “The nobles make up 1% of the population yet they hold 99% of the wealth.”

Purists should not be alarmed, as history has not been entirely forgotten. One of the main characters, a doctor, is named after Joseph Guillotin, the politician who popularized the use of the guillotine during the Revolution. In one episode, he talks about la vaccine, or “cowpox,” whose Latin root lent its name to the modern vaccine, and uses a microscope similar to the one developed by English optician John Cuff in 1760. And when asked about his long absence, another character claims to have fought in the American War of Independence alongside the Marquis de Lafayette before spending several years in Louisiana.

As for the sets, La Révolution was filmed across several historic site in the Paris region, including the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, the Château de Fontainebleau, and Chaalis Abbey in the Oise département, owned by the Jacquemart-André Foundation, which lent the series its art collection. The paintings hung in the residence of the Montargis family, a troubling noble dynasty in the story, are all authentic period pieces. “Audiences who want to immerse themselves in a world, a history, characters, and spectacular scenes will enjoy the series,” says Molas. “But I insist on the fact that this is an alternative history. If you want the true history of the French Revolution, it would be better to watch a documentary. There are lots of great ones out there.”