Les Aristocrates, Mangeurs de Peuple: On Zombies, Revolution, and Netflix’s La Révolution

By Tyson Leuchter

We open with a portentous quotation from Napoléon: “History is a set of lies agreed upon” (Napoléon does not appear in this or any other episode and is never mentioned again). Cut to a snow-covered château, once luxurious, now in ruins. “No king, no master” graffitied onto a blasted wall, flanked by severed heads jammed onto the surrounding fence. France, 1789. Out runs a panicked aristocrat, pursued by a masked, machete-wielding sans-culotte on a blood-spattered horse, a guillotine out-of-focus but prominent in the background. Too slow: the sans-culotte catches up and, in one smooth motion, slices the aristocrat’s head clean off. He collapses in the snow, food-dye blue blood geysering forth from his wound. The camera zooms out and we see the aristocratic blue blood, white snow, and red blood of a nearby corpse form the familiar French flag. Welcome to La Révolution. It does not get more subtle from here.

La Révolution is a new original series from Netflix, released on 16 October 2020. The first season runs eight episodes, ranging from 39 to 57 minutes long. It purports to be an “alternative” telling of the French Revolution of 1789, though apart from the cold open, the vast majority of the action takes place in pre-revolutionary 1787 (with a few brief flashbacks to earlier years doling out some snippets of backstory). The story tracks two main characters, Joseph Guillotin (Amir El Kacem) and Elise de Montargis (Marilou Aussilloux), and a villain, Donatien de Montargis (Julien Frison), whose narrative arcs eventually collide over a mysterious disease plaguing France’s aristocracy. In the process, the show ceaselessly reminds us, we will discover the unbelievable “secret history” of the revolution.[1] That secret, it turns out, is zombies.

Guillotin is named after the real eighteenth-century doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who did not invent the eponymous device, but so successfully popularized it as a “humane” form of execution during the Revolution that his name has been associated with it ever since.[2] In what appears to be a courageous gamble on Netflix’s commitment to multiseason arcs, our Dr Guillotin neither invents nor evangelizes on behalf of the guillotine by season’s end. Instead, we meet him as a kind-hearted prison doctor, a former orphan who ministers to the downtrodden and mourns his dead brother.[3] Guillotin soon crosses paths with Katell (Isabel Aimé González-Sola), a sympathetic nurse with novel ideas about inequality, gender roles, and justice. Together they investigate a rash of unexplained disappearances and deaths that have befallen the local poor. This, in turn, leads them to troubling discoveries about the local nobility.

The other main protagonist, Elise de Montargis, does not appear to be based on a single real historical personage.[4] Her father, the Comte de Montargis, is said to have gone to Versailles, but, ominously, no one has seen or heard from him in weeks. Unlike most other nobles we meet, Elise is deeply troubled by brewing social unrest. Rather than sit demurely by and watch the men debate politics, she intones about equality and her willingness to give up privilege, though precisely what that privilege is is left underspecified. In the absence of her father, Elise’s uncle, Charles (Laurent Lucas), plots to usurp the Comte’s seigneurial authority, while his louche son (her cousin) Donatien indulges in decadent pleasures. Elise is not alone, however; she relies on the company of her faithful servant Ophélie (Coline Beal) and her sister Madeleine (Amélia Lacquemant), who, though she narrates the voiceovers that open every episode, is in fact mute. Madeleine also appears to possess some form of magic powers, of which, in a tactic characteristic of much “prestige” tv, we are given only tantalizing glimpses, while the full explanation remains to be played out over however many seasons wind up being greenlit.

These storylines converge on the show’s main conceit: the disease that Guillotin and Katell diagnose and that Elise eventually also discovers is turning the nobility into zombies, whose blue blood we saw spewing forth in the opening scene. These are zombies of a particular kind: while retaining their cognitive abilities (no groaning mindless shufflers, these), the infected are rendered inhumanly strong, hungry for human flesh, and heedless to all injury save fatal decapitation. La Révolution sometimes plays fast and loose with the nature of the disease. It seems to heal some and leave others in a state of bodily disrepair—one character’s gangrenous leg is miraculously restored to health, while another character still bears the imprint of his temporarily-fatal gunshot to the head. The transmission of the disease also seems to vary across the episodes. We are told that it passes through the blood, but, unlike most other zombie tales, a bite alone won’t do it. Rather, victims must first be killed (asphyxiation appears to be the method of choice, though a pistol shot to the head will do in a pinch), then directly injected with a dose of tainted blood. All in all probably not ideal from an epidemiological perspective, but a good deal less contagious than, say, smallpox, which also exists in the show’s universe.

La Révolution probably takes place in the county of Montargis. I say “probably” because while the aristocratic particle “de Montargis” strongly suggests such a location, the show never says what the area is called outright. Instead, there are frequent references to the “county,” the local newspaper of which is called the “County Gazette” (Gazette du Comté). This curious lack of specificity is paired with a script that largely eschews nuance or narrative abstraction, in favor of more or less just telling you what things represent. The tainted blood, as we know, is noble blue. We soon meet a pack of rebels fighting for justice, social equality, and “the people” (though, somewhat counterintuitively, they are also quick to defer to a noble leader, so long as that noble voices the “right” ideas); they are literally named “La Fraternité,” and their leader is literally named Marianne, in case anyone harbored any lingering confusion as to whether this was a show about the Revolution.

Indeed, the show seems singularly nervous about needing to reassure viewers about its relevance. The script frequently namechecks present-day political debates, rather than trusting that a story about a wealthy, ineffectual social elite failing to contain a deadly pandemic might not need to stretch too far for contemporary resonance. Out-of-touch aristocrats thus sneeringly laugh over a character’s dedication to “social justice.” Katell, apparently a Pikettian critic of distributional inequalities avant la lettre, observes to Guillotin that the aristocrats are a mere 1% of the population, but control 99% of the wealth. Elsewhere, the show references previous works in what might be an attempt at postmodern pastiche. The first episode closes with echoes of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (“When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth”). In one mustache-twirling episode of dastardliness, a character recites the “sound and fury” soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, before biting his unfortunate audience of one. It remains puzzling why such a character would not draw from the more context-appropriate French dramatic tradition, which did not lack for scenes of moral instruction.

This referentiality extends to the show’s visual aesthetics. The county’s destitute town is depicted through the by-now standard visual grammar of period urban squalor: dirt-encrusted peasants wetly coughing and whacking big strips of cloth; piles of hay scattered in the corners of too-narrow streets; packs of Dickensian street urchins milling about in the background; the occasional rotisserie chicken. Such urban misery is juxtaposed with an equally standardized depiction of wealth out of reason: tilt-shifted shots of lavish châteaux; debaucherous parties that seem to employ the entirety of the fireworks and acrobat sectors of Old Regime France; prettily decorated cakes; haughty aristocrats striking poses reminiscent of famous paintings in eras past—Donatien mirrors Pierre Mignard’s equestrian portrait of Louis XIV in one such instance.[5] Such visual disparities, we are surely meant to infer, testify to the moral depravity of a society crumbling in the face of intolerable inequality. This depiction calls upon the luxury debate that wracked much of eighteenth-century society,[6] evincing little of that debate’s insights into the effects of commerce, political regime analysis, moralizing critique of a demilitarizing elite in a world of increasing interstate competition, wit, or invidious comparisons to Antiquity, but definitely incorporating its sharp policing of the boundaries of male sexual presentation and behavior.

La Révolution is not without its pleasures. The hair, makeup, and costumes teams are clearly having fun; whoever designed the many different kinds of viscera on display deserves our thanks and congratulations. The actors put in the work. The action scenes are exciting and well-choreographed. There are several grisly thrills: a vivisected rat whose heart still beats, arterial fountains spurting out the necks of unlucky victims, an unexpected use for a severed head. An anonymous stuntplayer falls off a horse with a convincing thud, a reminder of the immense amounts of labor involved in just a few seconds of screen time. A gruesome tavern massacre, largely filmed in one unbroken shot, impresses.

A Netflix show is not a peer-reviewed article or book; it would be unfair to expect the show to provide dispositive answers to questions historians have been researching for decades. La Révolution is fully entitled to the liberties and immunities we freely afford other kinds of pop entertainment. That said, pop entertainment can also say something important, even if it does so in an oblique way. And La Révolution clearly does aspire to say something important about inequality and political upheaval. Moreover, the notion of a parasitic aristocracy that must be excised from the national body clearly does connect to historical themes that had emerged with such force by 1789; the abbé Sieyès, for instance, was quite forthright that noble privilege could not be tolerated in a nation defined by legal uniformity.[7] But note that, in the world of the show, the aristocracy is a political problem less for what they are than for what they become: the aristocrats only turn into zombies when they are injected, against their will in every case so far, with the poisoned blood after death. The biggest issue with La Révolution thus is not that history didn’t “really” happen that way—of course it didn’t—it’s that the way the central conceit of the show is handled ultimately eradicates many of the most interesting questions about the prerevolutionary and revolutionary period. Why did revolution break out when it did? Why did a financial crisis—far from an unknown event in eighteenth-century France or indeed in other nations—transform into an all-consuming political and social crisis?[8] Why did inequality, long a constitutive element of the French regime, become a social ill so thoroughly intolerable? These questions have generated, and continue to generate, much productive scholarship, because they are energizing to grapple with and difficult to answer. And while of course a pop entertainment like La Révolution might not be able to fully address these kinds of questions, it could at least suggest how its individual story might be connected to wider social themes, which would, in turn, lend greater weight to the show’s ambitions to say something about unrest and revolution. But these questions become effectively nugatory if it turns out that members of a particular social order are gnawing on the others because they have been transformed into insatiable, ravenous monsters. Tax reform and throwing careers open to talents are unlikely to cure a zombie epidemic.

Most interestingly, La Révolution does gesture at possible international origins of the French Revolution, though currently this gesture remains incomplete. The etiology of the disease breaking out in France appears to stem from the Americas (specifically Louisiana, which would have been Spanish territory at the time). The precipitating cause of the domestic revolution is thus literally imported from abroad. The “global turn” in the historiography of the French Revolution has occupied scholars for some time now.[9] By fixing our attention on the ways in which both Old Regime and Revolutionary France were deeply enmeshed in international circuits of exchange, domination, contestation, and ideological transfer, works in this vein suggest, we can uncover heretofore underexamined aspect of the period. La Révolution walks up to the precipice of such a turn, but then backs away due to its refusal to make things specific. Take the character of Oka (Doudou Masta), the lone black person with a speaking role, one who possesses magical powers in another iteration of a longstanding filmic trope.[10] Oka is said to be an ex-slave and speaks of “voodoo,” which suggests an origin in the French Atlantic. But, so far at least, no concrete backstory has been forthcoming. No mention is made of St.-Domingue, Martinique, or Guadeloupe, despite these slave colonies playing an essential part in generating the disparities of wealth that the show takes such pleasure in condemning. Moreover, the very notion of a zombie first developed in the Caribbean, coming into focus in its contemporary form with the U.S. occupation of Haiti (1915-1934).[11] La Révolution is thus entirely correct to suggest that the malady plaguing the French aristocracy emerged out of the Atlantic world. But through its disdain for detail, the show discreetly veils the imperial domination that shaped that world, in favor of a rapidly sketched, quasi-mythical vision of the Americas.

La Révolution’s total runtime exceeds six hours, an advantage afforded by Netflix’s serialized television model. This could provide the opportunity to expand on themes that might otherwise have been sacrificed for expediency’s sake: a potential for zombie disembowelments with real symbolic teeth. Instead, La Révolution wants to combine the moral charge of the apex of unfreedom—slave empire—with a heroic narrative of social revolution essentially restricted to the hexagon, a paradoxical union smoothed over by relying upon pre-existing narrative tropes, shibboleths for contemporary relevance, and a kind of constitutive lack of specificity that serves to wave away the unsettling, but ultimately crucial, questions of revolutionary origins. It’s a missed opportunity.


Tyson Leuchter is Lecturer in Global History at King’s College London. His work has appeared in Modern Intellectual History, La Révolution Française, and French History. He is currently working on a manuscript on the making of financial capitalism in Paris between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century empires. Find him on Twitter @inkybrained.

Title image: Le Peuple mangeur de rois (anon, c. 1793).

Endnotes:

[1] La Révolution often strikes a strangely apologetic tone regarding its otherworldly elements. The voiceover narration that begins every episode frequently admonishes the viewer that, while they may not have heard of or even believe such an incredible tale, nonetheless this is what really happened. The first time we are told as much, it serves as a reasonable form of narrative tableau-setting. By the fourth or fifth time, it feels more like someone aggressively imploring you to trust in a lie they themselves don’t fully believe.

[2] Ciaran F. Donegan, “Dr Guillotin—reformer and humanitarian,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 83 (1990), 637-639. Guillotin favored abolishing the death penalty and viewed the institution of the guillotine as an important first step.

[3] Savvy viewers will suspect that, given the nature of the zombie canon, a dead sibling is unlikely to stay dead for very long, and indeed, this one does not.  

[4] The closest analogue appears to be Anne Claude Louise d’Arpajon, comtesse de Noailles whose mother was Anne Charlotte Le Bas de Montargis; in 1741, this younger Anne married Philippe de Noailles, whose seigneurial authority extended over the historical Montargis. Neither the comtesse nor the comte de Noailles appeared to evince the same sorts of revolutionary sympathies as Elise de Montargis, however, as both were guillotined in 1794. See Georges Martin, Histoire et généalogie de la maison de Noailles (La Ricamarie, 1993), 147-150.

[5] My thanks to Jessica Fripp for this reference.

[6] On the luxury debate, see William Sewell, Jr, “The Empire of Fashion and the Rise of Capitalism in Eighteenth-Century France,” Past & Present, 206 (2010), 81-120; John Shovlin, The Political Economy of Virtue: Luxury, Patriotism, and the Origins of the French Revolution (Ithaca, 2006); Maxine Berg and Elizabeth Eger, eds, Luxury in the Eighteenth Century: Debates, Desires and Delectable Goods (New York, 2002).

[7] Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, Qu’est-ce que le Tiers-État? (Paris, 1789).

[8] Lynn Hunt, “The Global Financial Origins of 1789,” in Suzanne Desan, Lynn Hunt, and William Max Nelson, eds, The French Revolution in Global Perspective (Ithaca, 2013), 32-43.

[9] On the global turn, see Lynn Hunt, “The French Revolution in Global Context,” in David Armitage and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, eds, The Age of Revolutions in Global Context, c. 1740-1840 (New York, 2009), 20-36; Suzanne Desan, Lynn Hunt, and William Max Nelson, eds, The French Revolution in Global Perspective (Ithaca, 2013); Laurent Dubois, “An Atlantic Revolution,” French Historical Studies, 32 (2009), 655-61; Paul Cheney, “The French Revolution’s Global Turn and Capitalism’s Spatial Fixes,” Journal of Social History, 52, 4 (2019), 575-83; David Bell, “Questioning the Global Turn: The Case of the French Revolution,” French Historical Studies, 37 (2014), 1-24.

[10] Cerise L. Glenn and Landra J. Cunningham, “The Power of Black Magic: The Magical Negro and White Salvation on Film,” The Journal of Black Studies, 40, 2 (2009), 135-152.

[11] Doris Garraway, The Libertine Colony: Creolization in the Early French Caribbean (London, 2005), 178-9; Raphael Hoermann, “Figure of Terror: The ‘Zombie’ and the Haitian Revolution,” Atlantic Studies, 14, 2 (2017), 158-9.

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