Masters of Cinema Review: King of Hearts (1966)
Philippe de Broca's anti-war comedy King of Hearts
is being released for the first time in the UK in a dual-format edition as part of Eureka's The Masters of Cinema collection. Unfortunately, while the 4K restoration makes the glorious costumes and lovely cinematography really pop, it can't make the rest of the movie interesting or funny.
The premise of King of Hearts
is interesting - in the latter days of World War I, Private Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates) is sent to the French town of Marville to find and defuse a bomb planted by the German army. Pursued by German soldiers, Plumpick hides in the local insane asylum and pretends to be an inmate, masquerading as the 'King of Hearts'. The rest of the inmates are the only ones still left in town and unless Plumpick can convince them to leave or deactivate the bomb on time, everyone will die.
One of the most surprising things about King of Hearts
is its nuanced, sensitive portrayal of mental health issues, which is really decades ahead of its time and... just kidding, all of the asylum inmates are the same kind of delusional, either believing themselves to be other people or pretending to be for the fun of it.
They put on gay costumes, in both the old-timey and modern meaning of the word, and they frolic about town, having a grand old time. It's all far too silly and slight to be offensive, or even problematic. King of Hearts
never strives for any semblance of realism.
Its brand of ridiculousness, however, rarely delivers any laughs. Some bits work, like having one of the inmates casually leave the door to a lion's cage open or Plumpick's shocked expression upon seeing a bear wandering the streets.
The problem is that pretty much everything is played for laughs. The inmates do a lot of goofing around, but it's not like the German or British soldiers are any less silly and outlandish. Plumpick is supposedly the straight man here, but it takes him quite a while to figure out the obvious truth about the merry townsfolk and even then he's more than willing to just play along on a few occasions - especially when it involves the beautiful Poppy (Geneviève Bujold).
It's hard to look at King of Hearts
as anything other than a long stretch of slightly amusing, colorful filler until the ending comes along when stuff actually happens. That's also when the anti-war message makes itself known. It's unsubtle, but there is some food for thought in the idea that madness is more comforting than war.
The best thing about King of Hearts
is the costumes. They're all wonderfully extravagant and colorful, simply delightful to look at. Some of the shots of the town also match the costumes in beauty - it's certainly a very well done restoration.
The dual format edition comes with a handful of interviews, a list of which will be provided below. The single menu is convenient, but it does reveal a disappointing lack of set-up options - your choice is basically yes/no for English subtitles. There is, however, an audio commentary track, which is appreciated.
Despite its bright colors and intriguing premise, King of Hearts
is mostly bland and dull. It's hard to get invested in the characters' plight or keep up the laughs when there is no real gauge of normality. Had the soldiers, or at the very least Plumpick, been played straighter and more serious in contrast to the inmates, the whole thing might have worked better.
Feature-length audio commentary by film critic Wade Major
2017 Interview with Geneviève Bujold
Interview with cinematographer Pierre Lhomme
Interview with producer Michelle de Broca
Trailer for the 2018 Theatrical re-release