King of Hearts (1966)

King of Hearts (1966), produced and directed by Philippe de Broca.

WW1 soldier Alan Bates is sent into a French village to find and disarm a huge bomb before midnight. He's in charge of the carrier pigeons, not bomb disposal, but that's army logic. What he doesn't realize at first: the townspeople have fled and inmates of the local insane asylum have emerged to costume themselves and take over the town.

It is an absurdist comedy with heaps of heart and romance. The soldiers are all ridiculous and the inmates are stage loonies, happy and gentle, given to strangely wise and pithy comments. They assume characters that seem perfectly natural for each: the Duke and Duchess, the hairdresser, General Geranium, the Bishop, and Madame Eglantine as the perfect brothel keeper.

Many of the women put on circus costumes and appear at the brothel. Is that kind? But wait: it is a pretend brothel and they are just playing at being dress-up prostitutes; there is no actual sex work going on. Says young Geneviève Bujold as "Poppy": "I wanted to find a man and thought this would be a good place to look".

In the end they know they can't defeat the forces of the real world at war. They're not that crazy. They return to the asylum and continue as before.

Not a success at the time, it became a cult film in the US and has been treasured since. You can see the features that were so appealing to the 1960s counterculture:

Bouncy carnival score by Georges Delerue.

Available on Blu-ray from Cohen Media. Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme supervised the new 4k scan of his film. The film scholar on the commentary track knows a lot about the French and Italian cast. Bates is a Brit and Bujold is French-Canadian; they are the only ones from off the continent.

Some of the dialogue is in English and those moments don't have subtitles. I had a hard time making out some of the dubbing in those bits, but it's not very important.

The image itself has probably never looked better, even to those who saw it projected.

Seeing this again after so many years, I was inspired to pound out the following rant, only loosely related to the movie itself. Feel free to skip to the pictures below; I won't mind.

I once knew a guy who had fallen in with a crowd of "New Age" (as it was called at the time) enthusiasts. They were credulous about everything "alternative": healing crystals, astrology, herbal this and that. They resisted any sort of critical challenge my friend tried to employ.

Eventually someone took him aside an said: "Stop it. You're spoiling everyone's fun". Light bulb went on: they knew it was nonsense but enjoyed playing at it, pretending: wouldn't it be great if it were so?

I've been to only one science fiction convention but I am aware of fandom, of people who live to be fans, who prefer the world of the imagination they find there to the mundane life they would otherwise lead.

I have had times in my life when "real life" seemed so simultaneously boring and repellent that I wanted to live inside books. Let the world go to hell.

Scoff at escapism, but as CS Lewis pointed out only prison guards object to escapes. I think everyone builds or finds pre-built little sub-realities that they try to live in. Sometimes they know it is pretending, but sometimes they forget.

Some of these world-builders are well respected: people who found new art movements, for example. Fine Arts often seem like little worlds; my impression is that some Theater people want to live in that world and never come out.

Political camps and ideologies can serve the same purpose. That is why argument between them can seem so purposeless: messages from beyond the boundaries are met first with blank incomprehension, then with anger. Who dares question the foundations of our world, putting us all at risk?

If reality is that which does not go away when we stop believing in it, then I think we can't take too much of it. Reality is too cruel. A little sub-creation with insulating powers is where we want to live.