LA KERMESSE HEROIQUE (France,1935). (English title: "Carnival In Flanders") Directed by Jacques Feyder. Adaptation, dialogue and screenplay by Bernard Zimmer, from a story by Charles Spaak. Decors, Lazare Meerson. Costumes, J.K. Benda. Photography, Harry Stradling, Louis Page, Andre Thomas. Music, Louis Beydts. Cast : Alerme, Francoise Rosay, Jean Murat, Micheline Cheirel, Bernard Lancret, Delphin, Louis Jouvet, et al.
The prize-winning masterpiece of director Jacques Feyder, stars his wife Francoise Rosay, Jean Murat, Louis Jouvet and many other excellent actors. Tongue-in-cheek comedy-farce is set in a Flemish town in the early 1600s. When Spanish soldiers show up, the men act like cowards, the panicky mayor pretends to be dead, and his spirited wife organizes the women to give the conquerors a good time. Lavishly and minutely detailed, the historically impressive re-creation (by the great Lazare Meerson) of the town, of paintings by Dutch masters and of the locals posing for them, make this a unique, inventive, beautiful and joyously immoral treat .
Feyder himself summarized his film as follows: "En 1610, un ambassadeur des Provinces-Unies traverse les Pays-Bas avec sa suite et, comme les chemins ne sont pas surs, avec son escorte, c'est-a-dire vingt-quatre piquiers et ving-quatre arquebusiers. Pas un de plus. Le bourgmestre d'une petite bourgade, se souvenant des exces de la soldatesque, est pris de panique et decide de faire le mort pour eviter d'heberger le diplomate. Madame la bourgmestre, revoltee par cette couardise, galvanise les femmes et organise pour l'ambassadeur et sa suite une reception triomphale; elle arive, par la meme occasion, a marier sa fille selon son propre choix."
This masterpiece of French cinema is a lavish, spectacular and minute historical reconstruction with superb production values, notably in sets and artifacts (by the great Lazare Meerson), and costumes. (The town of Boom still exists in Belgium. And the houses built were on a slightly smaller scale, to stress the importance of the humans and to permit easier framing of the scenes.)
Remarkable and inseparable from the look of the film, is its re-creation of the world of Flemish painters, with Jan Breughel having an important role in the plot. He was the son of the more famous Pieter Breughel and brother to the painter Pieter Breughel, the Younger. In the film he is much younger than he would have been in the early 1600s.
The plot is one long series of tongue-in-cheek satire that ranges from overt to covert, with farcical as well as joyously immoral situations. The acting is superior. Someone said that Mrs. Burgmeister persuades the local ladies that" it 's better to be laid than dead." An amusing "jeu de mots" but a simplification of the ironical barbs at the male bourgeoisie, the cleverness of women who are at the same time gutsy, inventive, feminine and attracted to the manly (and sometimes sophisticated) strangers from the South. On purpose or not, "La Kermesse" is definitely an early feminist screen comedy.
"Lysistrata" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor" come to mind, but "La Kermesse" is its own,marvelously well conceived entity. It was produced by a German Company, Tobis, and almost simultaneously a German version was made by Feyder, with his wife Francoise Rosay again as the only holdover from the French work. The film was called "Die Klugen Frauen" ("The Clever Women"). At its premiere in Berlin, it was enthusiastically received by a Who's Who audience which included Dr. Josef Goebbels*, the German Minister for Propaganda. It is this version (contrary to the misinformation in most books) that received the Best Director Award at the Venice Festival. The French film was awarded the Grand Prix du Cinema Francais in 1936, as well as the Best Foreign Film Award by the New York Film Critics.
The movie caused controversies as well as small riots initially. Some Flemish people protested the mocking portrait of Flemish notables. Others saw in it allusions to the Flemish collaborators during the Germans' occupation of the area during World War I. The movie was even called "Nazi-inspired."
All this died down soon, however. Still, it is easy to see why Josef Goebbels may have liked the idea of submission to conquerors.
This brings me to the inaccurate story that after France was occupied in World War II, Goebbels and his ilk persecuted Feyder and Rosay and forced them to flee. The couple did prefer, at one point, to simplify their lives and not have to work for the Nazis,first by going to the South of France, then to Switzerland where they taught. There, after they had made another film together, Ms. Rosay left for England while her husband remained in Geneva until war's end. (Edwin Jahiel)