Friday, December 30, 2016

Jacques Feyder | La Kermesse héroïque (A Carnival in Flanders)

getting it all by giving in
by Douglas Messerli

Jacques Feyder, Robert A. Stemmle, and Bernard Zimmer (screenplay, based on a story by Charles Spaak), Jacques Feyder (director) La Kermesse héroïque (A Carnival in Flanders) / 1935

It may be hard to imagine a proto-feminist film, directed by a man, coming out of France in 1935, but that’s very much what Jacques Feyder’s Carnival in Flanders is.

Ready to celebrate their annual carnival, the Flemish town of Boom, is busily preparing decorations in the square, while the small city’s Burgomaster and his associates pose for a painting by the local artist, Julien Breughel (Bernard  Lancret), who is in love with the Burgomaster’s daughter Siska (Micheline Cheirel); at the very moment that Breughel asks for Siska’s hand in marriage, however, her father (Jean Murat) is completing a deal with the butcher (Alfred Adam) to marry her in return for regularly purchasing his livestock—an agreement which his strong-willed wife, Cornelia (Françoise Rosay) finds to be obscene.

       In the midst of these events, two emissaries of King Phillip II, suddenly charge into town announcing, via a letter, that the next day The Duke d’Olivarès (Jean Murat) will be camping there for the night with his soldiers. Recalling the Spanish pillage and rape of citizens in Antwerp, the town leaders are horrified, and determine to hide out during the visit, the Burgomaster himself determining to play dead.

      Perceiving that the men of Boom will do nothing to protect them, the women,  headed by the Burgomaster’s wife, declare their own war, wherein they plan to readily woo the rowdy visitors with wine, food, and sex.

      The Spanish arrive, and to their delight the beautiful women, dressed in their best gowns, gladly give of themselves and their larders, while their men hide and cower. Some of the women give of themselves so willingly that it looks a bit like collaboration rather than accommodation. In one case, The Lieutenant apparently even finds a willing homosexual encounter. But others, like Madame la Bourgmestre, entertain with such wit and resourcefulness, that she wins over the Duke and even gets the corrupt priest (who boasts, in a kind of dark comic moment, he has been an interrogator of the Inquisition at Toledo) to marry Siska to Breughel. So pleased is  the Duke with the villagers that, as he leaves, he grants the entire city a year without taxes, which the Burgomaster’s wife immediately attributes to the work of her husband.
      Alright, these early feminists used the sleights of their sex to get what they wanted, but they have, nonetheless, shown their power and control over their menfolk. In this somewhat inverted Lysistrata, the women not only take control but get awarded through the love of the far more virile Spanish, for their actions.

      Feyder was vilified by many for his themes; and, two decades later, Truffaut singled the film out in a broadside against some French classics: “In this regard, the most hateful film is unarguably La Kermesse héroïque because everything in it is incomplete, its boldness is attenuated; it is reasonable, measured, its doors are half-open, the paths are sketched and only sketched; everything in it is pleasant and perfect.” One must remember that only a year after this French-German sponsored production, the Nazis were in Paris, and collaboration would become a real issue. Both the film’s director, Feyder, and its lead, Rosay fled to Switzerland.
     But watching it yesterday, I truly enjoyed its lusty implications, and applauded the women of Boom for their abilities to save their otherwise exemplary lives by simply using the ploys of their gender. Moreover, in its reliance on the tradition of Dutch painting, this gentle comedy tells us more about life in 17th century Flanders than reading many an historical tract. Surely it was a patriarchal, bourgeois society, but in Feyder’s joyful rendition it was allowed to enjoy itself if only for a night.

Los Angeles, December 30, 2016

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