Le roi de coeur (1966)

KING OF HEARTS (Roi de coeur, Le)

(director: Philippe De Broca; screenwriter: Daniel Boulanger/Maurice Bessy; cinematographer: Pierre Lhomme; editor: Françoise Javet; music: Georges Delerue; cast: Alan Bates (Pvt. Charles Plumpick), Geneviève Bujold (Coquelicot), Jean-Claude Brialy (The Duke), Françoise Christophe (The Duchess), Julien Guiomar (Bishop Daisy, Monseigneur Marguerite), Pierre Brasseur (Gen. Geranium), Michel Serrault (Marcel), Micheline Presle (Madame Eglantine), Adolfo Celi (Col. Alexander MacBibenbrook), Daniel Boulanger (); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Jacques Juranville/Philippe de Broca; Criterion Collection, The; 1966-France/Italy/UK-in English)

“The outrageous comical fable became a sleeper cult hit, that offers more spectacle than story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Whimsical anti-war satire that caught on with student Vietnam protestors after it failed in its wide release in England and America and opened in the college town of Boston to word of mouth raves. It has since become one of the more popular cult films ever made. The outrageous comical fable became a sleeper cult hit, that offers more spectacle than story. Director Philippe De Broca (“The Man From Rio”/”Louise”/”Dear Inspector”) pours on the charm and keeps his depiction of insanity as totally ridiculous (which one must accept or else it’s difficult to be engaged in the film), while writer Daniel Boulanger keeps it leaning in the direction of farce over substance.

It’s set during the last days of WWI. The occupying Germans retreat from the town of Marville, France, and leave behind a time bomb set to strike at midnight. The villagers tell the approaching British forces about the hidden explosives, and Pvt. Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates), a French speaking Scotsman, is dispatched by the arrogant cartoonish Col. MacBibenbrook (Adolfo Celi) to locate the bomb and dismantle it. In town, Plumpick avoids the Germans by sneaking into Marville’s insane asylum and dressing as an inmate. When the Germans search for Plumpick in the asylum, he tells them he’s the “King of Hearts.” This pleases the inmates who hail him as their returned leader and prepare to celebrate his coronation. They also offer him as his royal consort Coquelicot (Genevieve Bujold), a virgin inmate who is an acrobat and dancer. The gentle inmates ignore Plumpick’s frantic but futile search for the bomb, as they devote their energies to preparing for his royal wedding. Through a chance remark by Coquelicot, Plumpick locates the bomb in the village clock and detonates it. The loonies celebrate by exploding fireworks, which brings the Germans back to town. The Brits discover their enemy in town and both sides engage in slaughtering each other, while the frightened inmates return to the safety of the asylum and bound and gag their King of Hearts so he won’t risk his life in battle. After both sides destroy each other, Plumpick returns to the army to be assigned another unit. But after thinking things over, he throws off his uniform and gets rids of his equipment as he returns to the asylum and stands buck naked before some startled nuns and asks to be committed. This last shot became the film’s memorable one.

With a heavy-hand and a loaded deck, De Broca states his case that those who accept war are crazier than those who reject it. The director approaches a serious subject in a light-handed manner, and if you can just take in its goofinesswithout getting bent out of shape you might find the conceit mildly pleasing as so many did who protested the Vietnam War.