Philippe De Broca / France / 1966 / 102 mins
Available on DVD from Fri 8 Jun 2018
What could be madder than the lunatics running not just the asylum, but the whole town? War, apparently. That’s the message delivered with all the subtlety of a tank through the front window by this 1966 farcical romp from French director Philippe De Broca.
The narrative sees Scottish soldier Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates) attempt to infiltrate a small town in rural France, with the express purpose of disarming a bomb that the retreating Germans have rigged to blow on the stroke of midnight. Unbeknownst to Plumpick, the residents of the town have fled and had their places usurped by the inmates of the local mental institution, who immediately crown Plumpick as their King (of Hearts) and go about their business with eccentric whimsy and a complete disregard for the conflict raging just kilometres around them.
A pantomime, the film relies largely on slapstick and cheap punning for the majority of its gags, as the humour rarely graduates beyond the benchmark set by the mispronunciation of names or the extravagance of its coincidences. The biggest joke of all, of course, is the idea that mentally ill people are really just misunderstood cranks whose idiosyncrasies should be cherished and laughed at; the reduction of such a complicated and concerning malady to fodder for ridicule is in cringingly bad taste, even in a comedy of this kind.
It’s tempting to say that the film has aged terribly, though it’s hard to see how this sort of humour could ever have been in vogue – that may well be reflected in the fact that it bombed at the box office on its initial release. The small cult following which has surfaced in the intervening years is difficult to fathom; while all of the cast’s performances are adequate, the silliness of the storyline and the lack of wittiness which accompanies its delivery are most certainly not.
Indeed, its nominal merits are constricted solely to its conflation of war with insanity, but even that nuance is rammed home with no great ability or tact. As a result, the King of Hearts remains a missed opportunity to tackle an important subject with any semblance of maturity, insight or wit, and instead represents nothing more than a juvenile gibe dreamt up by those who appear to have no real understanding of either of the targets of their derision.