KERMESSE HÈROÏQUE [CARNIVAL IN FLANDERS]
Region 2 (UK) Edition - Reviewed by Mark Frost
André Alerme, Françoise Rosay, Jean Murat, Micheline Cheirel
The mayor (André Alerme) and his cohorts in
the Flemish town of Boom in 1616, squabble over the minor details of a
portrait they are sitting for, when news reaches them that Spanish
invaders are closing in with a view to occupy the town.
The panicking Mayor hatches a plot to send
Boom into mourning with news of his own death, in the hope that the
Spanish invaders will take pity on the grief-stricken townspeople and move
The Mayor’s Wife, Madame Burgomaster
(Françoise Rosay) is sent along with the rest of the womenfolk to persuade
the Army chief (Jean Murat) to take pity, but the Spanish insist that they
will stay for just one night.
With the male leaders of Boom keeping a low
profile, the downtrodden women make the most of the attention and seize the chance for a night of excitement.
Released in 1935, this French comedy was
very well received, winning the Grand Prix du Cinema Francais, as well as
the ‘Best Foreign Film Award’ by the New York Film Critics.
As the opening credits inform you, this
film is heavily indebted to the Flemish painters of the period it is set
in, with director Jacques Feyder intention to ‘popularise and spread
throughout the world the prestigious art of the great painters of my
native country’. He certainly succeeds in this, as the film is a constant
feast for the eyes - Lazare Meerson’s production design triumphant with
the recreation of a 17th century Flemish town in all its
minuscule detail, as if it had just jumped from the canvas of Brueghel’s
The Fight between the Carnival and Lent.
At first the film seems to be an indictment
of small town mentality – the men are couped up in impotent fear, while
the women invent unrealistic plans and waddle along as a gaggle of
flustered geese aimlessly do the same in front of them. But the Womenfolk
quickly take the initiative and make the most of the exciting new
visitors. They shamelessly indulge in copious amounts of food, sex and
alcohol, while their husbands helplessly look on.
As the problems of hiding the Mayor’s
secret escalate, the film becomes more joyously farcical with each scene.
Farce can be incredibly painful, but La Kermesse
Héroïque handles the
comedic situations with finesse – with many laugh-out-loud moments. The
characters are great value – Louis Jouvet’s immoral, bribe-taking Chaplain
the standout. The theme here is every man (or woman) for himself, as the
population of the town attempt to outdo the occupying mercenaries in
selfishness and looking after number one.
The film attracted controversy on its
release, as many critics saw parallels between the accommodating townsfolk
and Flemish collaborators during the Germans' occupation of the area
during World War I.
But in retrospect the events that followed
this film - France’s Vichy government welcoming an armistice with invading
German forces – leave you with a bad taste in the mouth and the feeling
you are watching a piece of pro-collaboration propaganda.
On La Kermesse
Héroïque’s cinema re-release in June 2004, reports stated that
this was a restored version. First impressions of the disc seem to
contradict this, as there is extensive print damage evident. But it must
be remembered that this film was made seven decades ago, and, although
soft, the picture is still very agreeable. The film is presented in
its original theatrical ratio of 1.37:1. Blacks are fairly strong and
the contrast and definition are impressive in places. The average bit rate
is 4.91Mb/s, across a single layer.
There are no such
concerns with ravages of time as far as the sound is concerned – the mono
track provided (at 192 kbps) is superb. Dialogue is clean at all times,
with hardly a trace of hiss or distortion. The BFI deserves praise for
their work on the film’s audio. Whispers in corridors and raucous drunken
celebrations display the same level of clarity throughout.
The animated menus are
striking - scenes from the film play behind a minimal layout aping BFI’s
packaging - the design is respectful and pleasing to the eye.
A film of this
importance deserves to have a multitude of essays, historian commentaries,
and retrospective documentaries to explain its position in cinema history
and help the audience understand the undercurrents and hidden agendas at
work. Unfortunately, all we get is a Director’s biography which, whilst
concise, is short on details specific to this film.
Many see La
Kermesse Héroïque as Jacqes Feyder’s masterpiece. A marvelously
executed blend of farce and bawdy comedy, to a backdrop of stunning set
design and ingenious interaction with famous paintings of the time (Brueghel’s
Two Chained Monkeys literally coming alive to serve as an important
plot device at one point).
History has taught us that something
altogether more sinister seemed to be on Feyder’s mind, but don’t let that
spoil your enjoyment of what is a gleefully immoral
comedy from the golden age of French cinema, presented on an
above-average disc from BFI.