LA KERMESSE HEROIQUE (Jacques Feyder, 1935)

“These are lofty matters beyond women’s ken.”

Boom, in Flanders, in 1611 bustles with activity, which slides into desperation when it is learned that a Spanish duke is headed with his troops to spend the night; such occupations normally leave towns skinned and pillaged. The mayor and his council are seized by a dark (and hilarious) vision of what may occur: shooting, raping, looting, rampaging, torture, and six barefooted men, lit to resemble ghastly silhouettes, hanging from a tree. Something must be done! The councilmembers decide to hide—except for the mayor, who plans to play dead. But the mayor’s wife, Cornelia de Witte (Françoise Rosay, formidable), isn’t such a coward; she organizes the women of Boom in her plan to greet, manipulate and pacify the approaching Spanish skunks, and thereby save the honor of Boom.
     Meanwhile, there is a boy who hopes to prove himself a man; Jan Breughel, son of Pieter and brother of Pieter the younger, and Siska, the mayor and Cornelia’s eldest daughter, are hopelessly in love. It is fitting, therefore, that Belgian-born French filmmaker Jacques Feyder’s La kermesse héroïque, a.k.a. Carnival in Flanders, should visually draw, strikingly, from Flemish art.
     Feyder had directed Garbo (The Kiss, 1929) and would direct Dietrich (Knight Without Armor, 1937), but it’s his collaborations with wife Rosay upon which his fame principally rests. La kermesse héroïque is widely considered his best film (I have seen only four others, one of which, the Swiss Visages d’enfants, 1924, is god-awful), but, talky, it falls short of its reputation. Winner of the Grand Prix du Cinema Français, the prize of New York critics as best foreign-language film, and the best director prize at Venice. Responding to its satire of invasion and occupation, the Nazis, prophetic, banned it.

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