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Banned in Belgium,
This review is from: La Kermesse héroïque  [DVD] (DVD)
It's Flanders three hundred and fifty years ago. A small town is threatened as a foreign army approaches. The men cave in even before the enemy shows his face. Memories of earlier massacres are enough to make them throw in the towel. Their women take over: Most of them seem pretty randy, and it's broadly hinted that their chubby, oafish boyfriends and husbands have been neglectful for quite some time. The girls just can't resist these elegant, charming, well-mannered and virile invaders. After some amorous encounters, the couples are predictably hungry. So there's a big meal, lots to drink, and lots of dancing. Breughel himself is on hand to record the festivities for posterity; in fact, the scenes are virtually out-takes from the Flemish master's paintings.
Less than a year after this film's release, the Belgian king proposed that his nation's historic neutrality be resumed. This after its violation twenty years earlier had evoked international outrage. The Germans, who had just evicted French and Belgian occupiers from the Rhineland, could hardly credit their good fortune. The French army was obliged to withdraw from its forward positions in Belgium; it could be argued that from that moment onwards, the German success of 1940 was virtually guaranteed.
The events of the Phony War and its humiliating denouement are chillingly prefigured. A squad of militiamen who happen to be drilling in the square, muskets at the ready, scatter at the very sight of just two Spanish messengers. The rich safeguard their money, while the poor just hide. Vivid recollections of the previous war seem to have paralyzed the town's political class. The women welcome the invader with open arms, and a good deal else. The mayor plays dead, literally.
And, guess what? These occupiers are a real nice change of pace from the hometown boys. Collaboration is raised to an art form and presented as farce. The titled, courtly commanding officer is both scrupulous and generous. And openly contemptuous of the male population. An Inquisitor is chillingly played by Louis Jouvet. He describes torture sessions to his female hosts, who find them fascinating and badger him for more details. He anticipates the arrival in The Low Countries (and elsewhere)a few years later of another kind of policeman, similarly urbane, venal, and likewise a past-master at extracting confessions.
Next day, the Spanish forces leave town, to the intense regret of the girls who haven't had that much fun in ages. And for a few days, business was pretty good; someone had to cater all those parties. The men crawl out of their holes to resume their narrow, stuffy, cowardly, mercantile lives.
As rule, most readings of symbolism, references, or implied meaning into a film are pretty tiresome. Maybe even a crashing bore. This just could be an exception. It may be painterly, lavish, and witty. But it's also an historical document, and an uncannily prescient one at that.