This lavish farce about a 17th century Belgian town whose women openly welcome Spanish invaders when their cowardly male counterparts go into hiding is a classic model of the ebullient pacing and jaunty eroticism that's long been associated with French comedic cinema. Feyder orchestrates his ensemble and witty dialogue with a lilting, musical efficiency, a quality that's also reflected in the camerawork, which moves sinuously across lavish sets inspired by Flemish paintings of the period. Feyder's fanciful farce envisions a marriage of pacifism and sexual equality yielding an idyllic society, which, despite strong critical support, rendered it anathema to contemporary politics. The Belgians saw it as a mockery of their leaders' ineffectuality during their occupation by the Germans during World War II; the Nazis eventually banned it when links between them and the film's invading Spaniards became apparent. It's utopian vision of international peace brokered by the fairer sex, while amounting to a feminist statement ahead of its time, seems downright naive in the immediate context of Petain and Chamberlain's appeasement policies to the Nazis (much in the way that the "we should have stayed in Iraq" argument underlying David O. Russell's Three Kings looks very different in the Bush era). But the film managed to place on many top ten lists in a poll conducted by the Belgian Cinematheque only a few years after the end of World War II, possibly attesting to the triumph of laughter and masterful filmmaking over one of the darkest moments of humankind.
Wanna go deeper?
The following votes counted towards the placement of Carnival in Flanders in the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films:
Augusto Genina - Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Carol Reed - Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Claude Autant-Lara- Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Jaume Figueras - Nickel Odeon (1994)
Marc-Gilbert Sauvajon - Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Vittorio De Sica - Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Daniel & Susan Cohen Book - 500 Great Films (1987)
French Academy of Cinema Arts and Techniques - 10 Best French Films in the Sound Era (1978)
Kinema Junpo Best Films of All-Time (1995)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
The John Golden Theatre, 202 West Fifty-eighth Street, where once played "Strange Interlude," "Ned McCobb's Daughter" and such like, has struck its colors to the cinema, and became last night the Filmarte, dedicated to the exhibition of outstanding pictures from abroad. Let us note at once that the Filmarte's first offering comes easily within the distinguished category mentioned in the theatre's dedication. "La Kermesse Heroique," which bears the subtitle "Carnival in Flanders," is an outstanding picture by any standards save those of strict moralists and stricter religionists.
A sly, gay and impious farce, typically Gallic in its conception and execution, it whipped its way past the State Board of Censors before that august body had time to recover from the news that the photoplay had received the Grand Prix du Cinema Français and some sort of a gold medal award of the Venice International Exposition of Cinematography. At first, we are reliably informed, the State Board had banned it outright. But then, hearing about its international honors, it reconsidered and leaned so far backward in its charity that the de Maupassant flavor of the piece has miraculously, been preserved. Which is all to the good and will, no doubt, reflect undeserved credit upon New York's guides to filmic morals
A delightfully satirical libel upon the city of Boom and its masculine inhabitants, the film has achieved a delicate balance between broad farce and subtle humor which makes it one of the most refreshing and witty pictures of the year. Technically, it is equal, if not superior, to anything Hollywood has turned out this season. On a performance basis, Alerme's mock heroic portrait of the Burgomaster is superb, Louis Jouvet's sardonic characterization of the friar a model of comic implication, Mile. Rosay's lively sketch of the Burgomaster's wife thoroughly delightful and Jean Murat's gallant Spanish grandee suavely perfect. The minor rôles are excellently served by an appreciative cast. And do not, we beg you, be dissuaded from seeing it because the dialogue is in French. Even without the many English subtitles, "La Kermesse Heroique" would be clearly understood; like all great comedies, it speaks a universal language.
- Frank S. Nugent, The New York Times, September 23, 1936
Carnival in Flanders / La Kermesse héroïque was made by Jacques Feyder immediately after his dark psychological drama Pension Mimosas, and he said that he wanted to relax by making a farce, far removed from the present day. He turned to a short story written at his suggestion ten years earlier by Charles Spaak, set in 17th century Flanders when it was under Spanish occupation. For the visual style of the film, Feyder wanted to pay tribute to the old masters of his native country — Brueghel, Frans Hals, Pieter de Hoogh — and an elaborate creation of a Flemish town was undertaken (in suburban Paris) by the designer Lazare Meerson. Sumptuous costumes were provided by Georges K. Benda. The strong cast included Feyder’s wife Françoise Rosay and Louis Jouvet.
On the strength of its richly detailed tableaux and the confident manner in which Feyder animated his historical farce, the film enjoyed considerable success in France and elsewhere in the world. The film historian Raymond Chirat pointed to the combination of the admirable sets, the splendid costumes, the biting irony of the story, and the quality of the acting which earned the film a cascade of awards, the admiration of the critics, and the support of the public. Georges Sadoul referred to “this important work, of exceptional beauty”.
However, even on its first appearance in 1935 this tale of occupation and cheerful collaboration also caused uneasiness, and the screenwriter Henri Jeanson deplored the “Nazi inspiration” of the film. It was indeed enthusiastically praised in Germany and its première in Berlin (15 January 1936) took place in the presence of Joseph Goebbels. (Yet, a few days after the outbreak of war in 1939, the film was banned in Germany and the occupied countries of Europe, and Jacques Feyder and Françoise Rosay subsequently sought refuge in Switzerland.)
It was in Belgium that the film caused greatest controversy, perhaps for the unflattering portrayal of Flemish leaders in the 17th century, or in suspicion of covert references to the German occupation of Belgian territory during the First World War. At any rate, the release of the film led to brawls in cinemas in Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges.
Even two decades later (1955), its enduring reputation irked François Truffaut who wrote, in a broadside against so-called ‘successful’ films: “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.”
Nevertheless, this remains probably the most popular and widely known of Jacques Feyder’s films.
Jacques Feyder had already made two sound films in France; his creative skills were by no means diminished by the new dimension. His successful collaboration with Charles Spaak was to further produce one of the wittiest, most colourful and amusing comedies to reach the screen, La kermesse héroïque. Taking as his subject the period of the great Renaissance of Flemish painting and the less happy era of Spanish domination, Feyder made a major contribution to "women's lib." The film satirizes political, religious, and moral pretentiousness, and the men come off second best when a strong-minded and realistic woman encounters a tricky diplomatic situation.
—Liam O'Leary, Film Reference.com
Full of earthy pleasures - eating, drinking and some surprisingly cheeky bedroom merrymaking - Carnival Of Flanders is a wickedly fast-paced comedy that greets its audience with a sly series of nods and winks. The carnival tradition has always been about letting the poor and powerless be king (or queen) for a day, and it's no different here as order is eventually re-established. Before it returns, though, director Jacques Feyder ensures that we sympathise with the women, not the dunderheaded buffoons they're married to.
If you want a compelling insight into the collaborationist mentality of Nazi-occupied France, there's Marcel Ophüls's great 1969 documentary The Sorrow and the Pity, currently on re-release, and Henri-Georges Clouzot's poison-pen thriller Le Corbeau (1943). But surely this sprightly French costume comedy from 1935 by Jacques Feyder, presented by the British Film Institute in a lovingly detailed restoration, outdoes them all, giving the most vivid if inadvertent glimpse of Pétainisme in the making.
Except for Louis Jouvet as a crafty Spanish priest, there is little laughter-producing comedy, but the movie, which resembles paintings by Dutch masters, is beautifully designed by Lazare Meerson.
This film is almost 70 years old and admittedly the print used was very poor. It has moments of quite detailed sharpness, but overall it is somewhat hazy with excessive grain. A single layered DVD that I can only assume has not had excessive restoration done to the print. On the positive - the subtitles are clean and removable and again the BFI impresses me with their animated menus. I feel I need to be lenient due to the mitigating factors of the age of the film. We should be grateful that they brought it to a wide audience on DVD.
Until now, Jacques Feyder has been unjustly reduced almost to a footnote in film history, but these beautifully-restored editions with stunning tints and new orchestral scores reveal him as one of the finest silent film directors in Europe. Following these accomplishments, Feyder was invited to Hollywood in 1929 to direct two outstanding films with Greta Garbo, The Kiss and the German version of Anna Christie, and to London for Marlene Dietrich in Knight without Armour; he is probably best remembered for Carnival in Flanders (La Kermesse heroique, 1935), which, unfortunately, was cut by about one-third for American release. Queen of Atlantis (L'Atlantide), based upon Pierre Benoit's best-selling exotic novel of the French foreign legion and the woman no man can resist, was filmed under gruelling conditions on location in the Sahara and in a large tent studio outside of Algiers. The desert, with its burning sun and vast expanse of sand, is the real star of this adventure, the most expensive French film until that time. It was hailed as a revelation, and ran for a year in Paris. Crainquebille is the name of a fruit and vegetable peddler (Maurice de Feraudy) who, accused of having insulted a policeman, becomes trapped in the bureaucratic web of French justice. He is sent to jail; after release, his bourgeois customers shun him, but at the point of suicide he is redeemed by an orphan newsboy (Jean Forest, an amazingly sensitive and expressive child found by Feyder on the streets of Montmartre). Feyder filmed on location around the market area of Les Halles and in some of the oldest areas of Paris. D. W. Griffith allegedly said of Crainquebille, "I have seen a film which, for me, precisely symbolizes Paris." Faces of Children (Visages d'enfants), a masterpiece, was filmed on location in the Haut-Valais region of Switzerland, with spectacular mountain scenery adding important atmosphere to the characters' complex emotions. The film is about the effect on a sensitive boy (again Jean Forest, who is heartrending) of his mother's death and his father's remarriage.This package is pretty stingy for what they are asking, but the films are marvelous with Visages d'enfants regarded as a true masterpiece (I was blown away!). I enjoyed the fantasy elements of L'Atlantide as well. We don't give full marks to the DVDs but the films are rare enough to be lenient with a recommendation. A must for fans of silent film!