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Wednesday 22 April 2009

Carnival in Flanders (1935)

Director: Jacques Feyder
Stars: Francoise Rosay, Jean Murat and Louis Jouvet

I've seen a half dozen of Jacques Feyder's films and I've found this underrated Belgian talent a fascinating filmmaker. That half dozen includes three silents and three sound films; three French films, two American and one German; two Garbos and two Ramon Novarros. He certainly got around during his time as a director, which ranged from as far back as 1915 to 1946, two years before his death. Now TCM gift me with another couple of his films, these ones from late in his career: the French Carnival in Flanders and the English Knight Without Armour.

Carnival in Flanders begins in 1616, in a town called Boom which, like the rest of Flanders, is under the Spanish thumb. However this occupation is pretty sparse with not a single Spaniard in sight. Apparently this is the time of Philip III, so a far less severe time than it had been, with war not far in the past. Life appears to be pretty happy, with all the preparations for the annual carnival in full swing, given that it's due the following day. The locals are preoccupied with their own lives, the town elders having their portrait painted, by a Brueghel no less, and Siska, the burgomaster's daughter, turning sixteen and preparing to be engaged, though her father has different ideas to her as to who she'll be engaged to.

Now, like everywhere else in 1616 the whole place is run by men, at least they think so. They're really a bunch of cowards the lot of them. When a trio of Spaniards ride into town everyone pays attention; and when one walks into the town hall to deliver a message, every man in the place trembles in fear. This is before they even notice that it carries the royal seal, at which point they reach outright panic. Apparently the Duc d'Olivarès will be visiting shortly with his retinue and they need somewhere to stay for the night.

At this, the burgomaster panics. He foresees the town being looted and pillaged, the leaders tortured and hanged, the women carried off and raped and even the babies thrown from windows onto raised pikes. So they hatch their plans for defence, which involve hiding everything they own, including themselves, and as a piece de resistance, pretending that the burgomaster is dead. So with the Spaniards close, it's left to the women to welcome them instead. And while the men see them all as 'old hens cackling before a storm', they're the real force behind the town and they know precisely how to take care of the Spanish.

The Duc arrives, in the company not just of soldiers but also of his personal monk, a dwarf and a pair of pet monkeys. And he's the picture of elegance, politeness and charm, the utter contradiction of what the Burgomaster expected. He accedes to the burgomaster's wife's request to move on a little further, but the men have travelled far, the horses need a rest and couriers are due to meet them in Boom, so they stay. He even insists on visiting the 'dead' burgomaster to pay his respects. His men are well behaved also and even pay for their drinks, but then again they have the women of the town taking very good care of them. Very good care.

I've seen a lot of films set in historic times, some in the seventeenth century, and with rare exceptions they tend towards the serious. It's as if filmmakers are afraid of insulting the ghost of Shakespeare by attempting except the most serious drama. It's the others that tend to bring me the most enjoyment, whether it be horror films or comedies like this. It takes care before even the title credits to point out that it isn't a true story, calling itself instead a heroic comic farce. It's a delight, albeit a fluffy one, with nary a dark side. It has a little spice to it, which is hardly surprising given the fact that the women of Boom drive the whole story, and only the wildly inaccurate projections of the burgomaster project doom in Boom.

The cast are superb, though it's a real ensemble performance. The closest thing to a lead is the burgomaster's wife, played by the real life wife of the director, Françoise Rosay. She takes charge with credibility, while her screen husband, played by André Alerme blusters about in an utter facade of control. Jean Murat is a dashing duke, Louis Jouvet is solid as the priest and Micheline Cheirel and Bernard Lancret are a believable doe eyed young couple. The dwarf is played by Delphin, bizarrely the only actor to be credited with a single name, a custom normally highly prevalent in French film.

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