Release Date: 06.12.1935
Screenplay: Charles Spaak and Bernard Zimmer
Music: Louis Beydts
Cinematography: Harry Stradling, Louis Page et André Thomas
1616. In the small Flemish village of Boom, the burgomaster is preparing a banquet for his daughter’s wedding to the local butcher. She, however, is in love with the painter Jean Breughel. A messenger suddenly announce the arrival of a Spanish army unit, led by the Duke of Olivarès, passing through on their way to Holland. The news causes widespread panic – the male villagers go into hiding and the burgomaster pretends to be dead. The burgomaster’s wife, Cornelia, takes charge of the situation, gathering the women of the village to organise a fête to welcome the Spaniards. With her husband safely out of the way, Cornelia charms the war-weary Spanish Duke and gets him to approve her daughter's marriage to Breughel.
This enduring classic of French cinema is often cited as director Jacques Feyder's finest film and it certainly earned him great acclaim on its release in 1935. It was awarded the Grand Prix du Cinéma Français and also a medal by the Societé d’Encouragement à l’Art et l’Industrie. The film was particularly successful in Germany, where it was praised (for obvious reasons) by the Nazi regime. In the following years, the film soon lost its popular appeal. It was reviled by the nationalists in Belgium, who described it as blatant German propaganda. Then, paradoxically, it was banned in 1939 by the Nazis. It is only comparatively recently (within the last thirty years) that the film has regained classic status that it clearly merits.
The most striking thing about La Kermesse héroïque is its epic visual feel. Huge sets and a cast of, if not thousands, several hundred, give a convincing recreation of 17th century Flanders. Feyder is reputed to have made the film to promote Flemish art. This is borne out by the elaborate sets and costumes (evidently inspired by the paintings of Franz Hals and Jordaens) which gives the feel of a painting »that has come to life«. Although made in black and white, it is a hugely colourful film, full of energy and humanity - in fact very typical of Feyder's works as a whole.
The film skilfully combines the spectacle of a quality historical drama with outrageous comic farce, making this one of the finest comedies in French cinema history. The magnificent Françoise Rosay gives possibly her finest comic performance as the cowardly burgomaster’s wife, lighting up every scene she appears in with her perfect comic timing and indefatigable sense of authority. An excellent cast includes Louis Jouvet in one of his first screen roles, playing a chaplain with an all-too-evident taste for the pleasures of the flesh.
Whilst some of the comic situations in the film are possibly a little laboured, La Kermesse héroïque is a charming work which does offer a very effective satire on the politics of collaboration. In one harrowing sequence (brilliantly executed), the film shows what can happen when a small town attempts to resist an occupying power. Compared with that, the humiliation of wining, dining and bedding the enemy appears to be a far smaller price to pay. Or so it would seem.
© James Travers 2002