King Of Hearts

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

King Of Hearts
"This film puts its cards on the table from the start, but plays them with a light touch."

A sweet French comedy that only did moderately well at home but struck a chord with the anti-war movement and lovers of surreal cinema in the US, King Of Hearts went on to be revered as a cult classic around the world. Though no specific aspect of the story, acting or production is uniquely brilliant, somehow they come together to create a cinematic magic that has helped the film find its way onto many people's lists of lifelong favourites. Even if it doesn't do this for you, it's a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours and it's not something you're likely to forget in a hurry.

It's close to the end of World War One. As German troops withdraw from France, they're leaving some nasty surprises behind, trying to destroy sites of strategic value. One of these is the little town of Marville. Aware of the danger, its inhabitants flee, all except for those in the local asylum. Hesitant to get too close to them yet still feeling some degree of concern, those departing simply unlock the gate of the place without giving them any idea what's going on. Theirs is an unexpected liberation, and director Philippe de Broca deftly captures their joy as they regain the trappings of citizenship, from cosmetics and workmen's tools to cardinals' robes and military uniforms. The only thing they lack in this utopian parody of post-revolutionary France is a king, and all speak of their longing for him.

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Enter British soldier Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates), who has been dispatched to find and disarm the bomb in Marville. Doing so when all those who might have provided support are gone is no easy task, and as he gradually comes to realise what's going on, he considers fleeing - but by then, he has become attached to the former asylum inmates, and he's reluctant to leave them to their fate. The more so because they have crowned him as their King of Hearts.

Paralleling the madness of people in the town with the madness of those trying to kill each other outside it, this film puts its cards on the table from the start, but plays them with a light touch. The characters are, of course, cartoon lunatics, just a bit delusional or slow on the uptake rather than caught up in the discomfort of most real mental illnesses, but this is used effectively to illustrate the folly and prejudice of the departed townspeople. It also allows for social satire as they take on all the roles they see as necessary in society without the usually attendant mores or cultivated hypocrisy. This extends to sexual playfulness which avoids the awkwardness of issues around consent by remaining lighthearted and sweetly romantic - perhaps too much so to exist in the outside world. Here de Broca makes sport of the conventions of French cinema.

Plumpick makes an engaging hero, played with poise and eschewing more obvious comedic befuddlement. Bates keeps viewers onside as he comes to see the world in a different way. The humour is warm and gentle and frequently absurd, and even the most unlikely scenes find a place within the whole. De Broca delivers potent satire in a manner both skilful and charming.

Reviewed on: 05 Jun 2018
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Sent to the small town of Marville to disarm a bomb left behind by retreating German troops, an English soldier finds it has been taken over by the abandoned inmates of the local asylum.
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Director: Philippe de Broca

Writer: Daniel Boulanger, Maurice Bessy

Starring: Alan Bates, Geneviève Bujold, Pierre Brasseur, Adolfo Celi, Françoise Christophe, Micheline Presle

Year: 1966

Runtime: 102 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: France, Italy

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