This is my second consecutive review on this blog of a long out-of-print Criterion title only ever issued on laserdisc. As was the case with Blowup earlier this month, it's taken me awhile to gather my thoughts and figure out what I have to say about the film. But unlike the former review, where I was basically spilling over with ideas and enthusiasm for the movie in question but just had a hard time expressing myself through the written word, my reasons for taking a bit longer to write about King of Hearts than I would prefer are more pragmatic. I've been busy with preparations for my son's wedding that just took place on Saturday. That happy obligation put a severe cramp on the time and energy I could dedicate to a film that had a fairly equal balance of admirable and aggravating points for me to ponder.
Released in late 1966, there wasn't a whole lot that happened with the film in its original theatrical run that would have ever pointed to King of Hearts going on to earn a cult following status and an eventual place among the Criterion Collection's catalog of "important classic and contemporary films." As far as I can tell, the movie initially flopped in France and it's not too hard for me to see why. Presented as a fanciful send-up of the political and cultural norms that legitimize the conduct of war and the senseless destruction that follows in its wake, the movie definitely requires viewers to get on board with director Phillippe de Broca's fanciful indulgence before the points he's trying to make about the insanity of military logic and the wisdom of social non-conformists can stand on their own merits.
The story revolves around Plumpick, a Scottish soldier in World War I who's commanded to enter a town that's been marked for demolition by German military officers who've made a strategic retreat. His mission is to discover the meaning of a cryptic warning message and defuse the booby trap that's been set by the enemy, but his specialty is ornithology, which he applies in the deployment of carrier pigeons who relayed messages across the battlefields in those pre-wireless days. It's quite obvious that Plumpick is the wrong man for the job as far as combat strategy is concerned, but it puts a man in uniform of the most plausibly pacifist temperament into the center of the action, as well as an absurdist twist into de Broca's satirical intentions.
When Plumpick enters the village, he discovers that it's been abandoned by all of its inhabitants, except for the residents of the local lunatic asylum, who turn out to be a merry and festive bunch of lovable misfits. Pursued by hostile German soldiers, Plumpick manages to swiftly disguise himself as one of the inmates, declaring himself the King of Hearts in a moment of inspired improvisation, following the example of one of his fellow loonies who declared himself the "Duke of Clubs." Of course the German soldiers see a bunch of unattended "crazy people" and hightail it out of there with no further investigation, as if they were afraid of being mentally infected by lingering in their presence, but this is the first jumping off point where I had a hard time bridging the gap. Though I suppose a few of them could be considered mildly delusional, it's painfully clear that the premise of citizens being institutionalized for mental illness is just a pretext for humor, a chance to show misunderstood individuals coming out into the open and expressing themselves in ways that mainstream society would neither tolerate nor truly understand.
As the asylum empties, we're treated to extended passages showing various members entering shops and markets where they have access to all the goods left behind, and free rein to adopt whatever wardrobe and mannerisms suit them. As the poster at the top indicates, most of them take a turn toward the flamboyant, whether it's the pompous uniforms and embellishments favored by the men or the sexy attire of the women. Once everyone has had their moment of redefining themselves, the village takes on the atmosphere of an open-air circus, with frequent eruptions of prancing and parading that occur throughout the film, accompanied by jolly oom-pah-pah music aimed to have a charming, winsome effect.
The unfortunate thing about King of Hearts as far as I'm concerned is that those sequences go on way too long and pop up far too often to hold my attention or secure my affection. Though the movie manages to redeem itself toward the end with some sharper edged critiques of the futility of war, even those passages stir up dismayed comparisons on my part to films like Life is Beautiful and TV shows like Hogan's Heroes that I have a hard time laughing at due to what I consider crass employment of profoundly awful historic realities. I don't want to be as critical toward this film as I am toward those two examples in particular, but the misplaced whimsy tended to get on my nerves, even as I felt some sympathy and respect for what I think de Broca was trying to do.
It's always kind of tough when a filmmaker is more convinced of his actors' inherent cuteness than his audience, and that's where I struggled. Even a brilliant directorial genius like Fellini got lost in those weeds later on in his career, and I don't think de Broca belongs in that company, even though the influence, or even call it indebtedness, is obvious. Certainly a youthful Genevieve Bujold is as adorable as one could ask for, but her coquettish appeal is pushed too relentlessly, and too often the humor just doesn't seem to click the way it's supposed to.
Having said that, I can recognize how this part of the film's message, about the value of shedding one's hang-ups and inhibitions, probably appealed quite a bit to the mid-1970s audience that discovered King of Hearts and made it a repertory cinema staple over the next decade or two. It's a celebration of misfits and outcasts who don't fit into the mainstream, not too different in essence than a movie like The Rocky Horror Picture Show that created such a huge sensation in some circles around the same time. And that's how I first saw this movie, years ago, at a midnight movie show where the combination of being under the influence of something or other and quite a few intervening years left me with only the shallowest recollection of the film featuring a bunch of people mincing around like clowns, and that eventually posterized shot of Alan Bates' bare ass at the end of the film, after he's decided to shed his military uniform and fully join the community of "flakes, fruits and nuts" (to revisit that old 70s slang for moment) with whom he could identify without regret or apology.
In short, unless one has a personal nostalgia for King of Hearts based on earlier viewings from a more impressionable stage of life, or unabashed appreciation for the more twee aspects of 1960s cinema, I'm not that confident that this is the kind of film that would generate a significant clamor for Criterion to reissue in 2015 or anytime in the future. I just don't think it's aged that well. The laserdisc release made plenty of sense in 1990, when the film was still riding the coattails of its revival circuit popularity. But the 2001 DVD has been out of print for quite a few years now, with no reissue in sight. Rather than pay the premium for an OOP edition that doesn't even feature a good transfer, I found a decent full-length presentation on YouTube, with English subtitles helpfully added by the guy who uploaded it. (Click the CC button on the lower right and choose the "Hebrew" option.)
Maybe a solid HD presentation and bonus supplements would help me to love this film a bit more than I do, and if Criterion ever does a reissue, I will probably pick it up. But I'd be perfectly happy if they didn't.
Next: Andrei Rublev