Thursday, 5 September 2013

Jacques Demy's The Pied Piper (1972)

Jacques Demy’s 1972 film The Pied Piper is a countercultural take on the legend which in some ways comes a little after its time. Donovan’s fey troubadour is a figure from 1967 rather than the early 70s, when the zeitgeist already blew a little more harshly, the idyllic summer a memory eclipsed by subsequent unrest, fragmentation and narcotic drift. The dream of a medieval age of pageantry is thus as much a dream of the 60s ideals which were seeming ever more remote. The generational and ideological divide which marked the decade is here represented by the forces of the church, the armed state and the newly ascendant business class, who are ranged against the artists and philosophers (the peasantry don’t get much of a look in, here). These powerful Hamelin cliques are conveniently colour-coded (although not to the extent of having their faces painted blue or red, as Demy pigmented his servants and soldiery in his 1970 fairy tale Peau d’Ane, or Donkey Skin). The baron and his enforcers wear a mouldy green broken up by sloping military stripes. The cardinals and bishops are wrapped in scarlet, their perspiring faces peering beadily out from capacious hoods. The merchants wear black jerkins (or a more plush red for the higher amongst them) which give them a puffed-out, preening look. The travelling theatre troupe which comes to town have their own loose uniform of striped tunics, but the colours are varied and natural – sky blue, blossomy peach, earthy brown and mossy green. They are colours which reflect the landscape which they pass through, and in which they make their camp each night, and suggest that they are more at home here than in the cities and towns where they go to perform.

Church and state in the appropriate attire - Peter Vaughan and Donald Pleasance
The costumes of the Hamelin worthies are exaggerated and highly theatrical, and make it clear that Demy’s middle ages are defiantly non-naturalistic – a land of fable rather than historical verisimilitude. They are also buffoonish outfits, casting the figures of authority who wear them as grotesques, caricatures of their own warped desires and ambitions. The Burgermeister and his wife’s social aspirations are displayed in the absurd extravagance of the hats they struggle to keep aloft during the tactical marriage of their young daughter to the slimy Franz, the Baron’s son (a mercenary wedding of new money and bankrupt aristocracy). Diana Dors (as Frau Poppendick, the wife) in particular carries spectacularly over-the-top headgear throughout, which she manages to keep admirably well-balanced. The portable marquee which tents her features with such ostentatious modesty early on could be seen as a satire on Hollywood medievalism, with its queens and princesses in conical turret bonnets trailing wafty clouds of gauze. The Baron has a spritish, tapering cap which looks like it's been soaked in algae, or is some fungal growth sprouting from his pate. His bullying son Franz has rolls of green cloth layered in foppish folds atop his floppy, patrician mop. The bishop has his papal hood rising in a mitred, scarlet shield, but his face is also shrouded in a nunnish wimple. These fools’ caps are designed to conceal and disguise, or connote status, but only serve to emphasise the wearers’ vanity, pretension or madness. The players, on the other hand, have loose tunics which hide nothing, and Melius, the alchemist who is the town’s figure of learning and reason, dresses in a simple and noble robe.

At home with the Poppendicks - Roy Kinnear and Diana Dors
The prevalence of British character actors heightens the air of grotesquery. Roy Kinnear, as the Burgermeister Poppendick, brings his usual comic mannerisms into play. He is every inch the businessman who has made his pile through dodgy dealing, and is shifty, opportunistic and completely untrustworthy. He’s also utterly ineffectual as a public figure, and offers muttered asides as to the helplessness of it all. Diana Dors plays his domineering wife Frau Poppendick, one of the bellowing, comic shrews she specialised in during the 70s. She shifts with complete assurance between red-faced shrieking and saucy, winking lasciviousness, and its clear that she’s having a bit on the side with Franz. The thickly curling horns of her wedding bonnet, shaped like indulgent French pastries, seem to mock her cuckolded husband, whose gnomish, priapically extended fez is a pathetically overcompensatory response. Donald Pleasance’s Baron is a mad, muttering recluse, retreating to the shadowy spaces of his castle, and ultimately to the shuttered nook of his coffined bed. His dank lair is covered with morbid murals of devils and skeletons, promising diverse varieties of detailed torment. They are the outward projection of his clammy, twisted mind. Peter Vaughan’s Bishop is a guiltily perspiring serpent, desires as tightly constrained as his face-hugging costume. They are transformed into poisonous bile which his religious authority affords Papally sanctioned expression. John Hurt’s Franz, the privileged scion of the Baron, is poutingly sullen, lighting up only with the sadistic satisfaction he derives from the cruelty which his inherited power and its attendant aura of fear allows him to indulge. All of these exaggeratedly self-interested and power-hungry characters, with their various political ambitions, parallel the powers at play in Ken Russell’s The Devils, released a year earlier in 1971. Russell’s film is entirely dissimilar in tone, but does bear comparison in its use of stylised costume and set design and in its clear parallels with contemporary social, political and military conflicts. Both films are, in their own ways, intensely moral, and unafraid to declare their allegiances, even if this results in a certain schematic division into good and evil.

The Frau and her Franz - Diana Dors and John Hurt
The various powers in Hamelin all have their own schemes, put forward by their leaders. They conspire together in order to realise them, and to maintain their position. Burgermeister Poppendick and his wife wish to graft themselves onto an aristocratic family tree. To do this, they are prepared to marry off their daughter, still a child, to the slimily unappealing Franz. In this way, Frau Poppendick will also have her lover on hand, even if he would by then be her son-in-law. Franz’s aside to the Bishop during the wedding feast makes it clear that he too is fully aware of this, but chooses to tactically turn a blind eye. The sexual hypocrisy of the powerful, who put on ostentatious masks of piety and rectitude, is revealed in the end when Franz reaps his just reward and catches the plague whose proliferation he has enabled. The black circle which almost instantaneously appears on his cheek resembles the patches dotting the faces of the characters in Hogarth’s moral fables; patches which cover syphilitic scars.

Vainglorious dreams - the mad baron and the calculating bishop
The Baron is obsessed with building a new cathedral in Hamelin, facing his castle. This is not so much a monument to the glory of God as a further expression of his power and his preening ego. The Bishop is obviously keen to encourage this, as it would enhance his own prestige. But he is aware that the mad Baron has no practical idea of the costs involved, and the Burgermeister and his guild heads have already taxed every possible local resource. The half-built cathedral façade, with its idle workers and wooden winches and scaffolding, is like an unfinished set. It could perhaps be seen as an admission of budgetary limitations, or as a pointed rejection of Hollywood historical spectacle. The economic exhaustion which the extravagant fancies of the Baron has created has hints of the 70s downturn (although the ’73 OPEC oil hike had yet to make its devastating impact), with images of builders sitting disconsolately inactive about the site striking a resonant note. The rising towers of the cathedral could also be seen as a reflection on the greed of property speculators in the 60s and 70s, erecting grandiose buildings in prime locations and then letting them lie empty for years while they waited for rents to rise, and for sufficiently wealthy tenants to move in. The high-rise modernist office block Centre Point, in the heart of London, was one of the most notorious cases. It lay empty for some 5 years after its completion in 1967 at a time when unemployment and homelessness were rising steeply. The cathedral is only ever seen in the form of its architectural model, or as an elaborate cake produced for Franz’s wedding, another sign of its cynically political provenance. The cake’s delicately iced rose windows and arched doors are shattered by the rats which emerge from within, causing the whole structure to collapse in a symbolic rubble of crumbs and sugary dust.

A higher authority - toadying to the papal representative
A Papal envoy, carried into the town in a palanquin resembling a wooden coffin, is a representative of an echelon of power far surpassing the provincial concerns of the Hamelin elite. His demand for soldiers for the Pope’s expansionist campaigns makes it clear who is really in control, and prompts further scheming. There is no money to pay men to go to war, and not enough of them to spare anyway. Franz comes up with the idea of a children’s army. Their innocence can be exploited by offering them worthless fool’s gold, which he will force the alchemist to forge. Implicit contemporary parallels are drawn with Vietnam, and the young me drafted to fight there. With the arrival of the rats and the panic over the spread of the plague they bring in their wake, the cynicism and self-serving actions of the Hamelin authorities reaches a new, murderous pitch. Franz’s insistence that Melius, the alchemist and apothecary, devote his attentions to the creation of the fool’s gold for his children’s crusade rather than concoct a preventative medicine to protect against the plague shows a willed blindness. It’s a blindness which gives precedence to short-term capital gains over the management and care of the natural environment. Again , a concern very much in tune with the times, and the dawning awareness of impending ecological crises. The dark and unsparing representation of the hypocrisy and viciousness of power which lurks behind the grotesque surface of the film’s colour-coded villains reaches a climax with the burning of Melius at the stake. His heresy is the assertion that the plague is caused by natural means, and can thus be cured by natural methods. The Church claims it is a curse sent by God, and rests its authority on such a position. The Bishop is not about to have his authority challenged, and pronounces sentence with scarcely a moment of reflection. He is backed up by the Baron and Burgermeister, Church, State and Commerce uniting to serve their own interests. Demy displays a subdued sense of rage against his authority figures throughout, but it bubbles to the surface in the final scenes. His fairy tale certainly possesses a very adult subtext, engaged and angry. It has some of the spirit of Angela Carter’s worldly recasting of the old stories – sharp and wise.

On the borders of elsewhere - the magical storm
The cast of fairy tale villains, shaded in contemporary colours, are given particular prominence in Demy’s sombre fable. But we start with the wagon of a travelling troupe of players trundling across the countryside, the painted cloth backdrop of a beatific female martyr smiling in the flames like a bright sail helping them along the way. The painting is almost like a precognitive representation of Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake in 1431, many decades after the mid-fourteenth century setting of the film (the post-credits historical screed informing us that the year is 1349). They pick up two further travellers as they approach Hamelin: a peddlar pilgrim, hawking relics and crusade souvenirs; and Donovan’s mysterious troubadour, the sharply pointed prow of his cap shading his gaze. The piper’s fey, otherworldly character is underlined by the magical storm which flashes around the encampment the night after he joins them. Theatrical lighting illuminates the stage set, its artificiality lending the scene an eerie charge, as if we were on the borders of some otherplace. This motley group are strongly reminiscent of the wandering players in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. They too are seen as innocents, free from the corruption of the world they move through and open and generous to those they meet. The pilgrim offers a more worldly perspective akin to that of the knight’s squire in Bergman’s film. They are a band of outsiders, whose lowly, vagabond status is made abundantly clear to them as soon as they arrive at the gates of Hamelin. The bawdy, knockabout popular entertainments they put on in front of their large Marian screen purvey a different, more honest and open vision of the sacred to that put forward by the Church. It’s a vision which finds the sacrosanct present in the common experiences of everyday life, in the pleasures which the Church would taint with sin.

Subversive art - the players' backdrop
There’s also a subversive element to the players, a mockery and peasant disregard for authority which anticipates non-conformist beliefs to come. The backdrop with the burning female saint has an enthroned king to the side gesturing his approval whilst a flunky does the hot and dirty work and fans the flames to enhance the spectacle. The woman’s sanctity is made evident by the golden headdress of her halo and the angel reaching down her hand in preparation to usher her into heaven. The king and the state he commands is thus portrayed as the villainous party, creating martyrs of holy innocents. In the show they put on outside the walls of the town, silent comedy angels suspended in the air (flying Keatons or Chaplins) deliver boots up the backside to prowling baddies who look suspiciously like castle guards. Again, there are parallels with The Seventh Seal. In Bergman’s film, the players’ life affirming farce is disrupted by a procession of self-flagellating penitents, who oppose it with their own theatrical spectacle of wailing and suffering. In Demy’s film, the players put on a show for the wedding feast which makes play with the story of Eve’s temptation of Adam. Here, a giant hopping apple and a frustrated serpent arrive too late to perform their assigned roles. Eve is beaming and caressing her rounded belly while Adam stands to the side, looking very pleased with himself. There’s no hint of sin or shame in this Garden, over which the painted figure of another female figure looks with an approving eye. The players and artists are associated with a more Marian worldview, heralds of a female future in which male power holds less sway. This is in marked contrast with the Bishop’s wedding ceremony, during which he venomously hisses about Eve’s curse and voices the Church’s abhorrence of female sexuality.

Songs for children - Donovan plays real good for free
The players remain essentially peripheral to the story, however, never becoming directly involved in its unfolding intrigues. Even the pied piper is a rather shadowy presence, a keenly observant onlooker from the wings who only takes centre stage to perform his three significant acts of musical enchantment: the waking of the Burgermeister’s daughter from her trance; the herding of the plague-carrying rats to the watery end; and the leading of the children in a merrily dancing parade to elsewhere. In a way, he is a little like Bob Dylan’s character in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (although a lot less twitchy) - the artist observer, taking in what he sees and storing it for future use. In the Pied Piper, however, Donovan’s songs are directly incorporated into the story rather than serving as its background soundtrack. Donovan’s piper is a figure from beyond time. Whilst the theatrical band take up hurdy-gurdy, cittern and tabor to play through a medieval estampie dance, he carries his psychedelically daubed acoustic guitar and sings songs which could have been taken from Donovan’s own albums for children, HMS Donovan and For Little Ones. Songs steeped in 60s Pre-Raphaelite medievalism like Guinevere and Celeste make him something of a natural for such a role, and he would go on to write songs for Franco Zeffirelli’s portrayal of St Francis as hippy saint, Brother Sun, Sister Moon.

The relaxed and industrious home - Melius and Gavin (Michael Hordern and Jack Wild)
The central characters outside the conglomerate circle of villainy, however, are Michael Hordern’s Melius, the Jewish alchemist, and his surrogate son Gavin, played by Jack Wild. Wild brings some of the urchinry he put to good use as the Artful Dodger in Oliver to the character. But here he has a settled home and a scholarly Jewish guardian with his best interests at heart. Melius’ laboratory cum library is a far more welcoming home than the Baron’s forbiddingly dark and labyrinthine castle. It’s filled with light, books, pots and bottles, alembics, bird cages and curios (preserved crocodiles and turtles) which suggest a lively curiosity about the wider world. Its busy but relaxed atmosphere is in complete contrast with the morbid interiority of the Baron’s gloomy surrounds, or the fussy quarters of the Burgermeister and his wife, where harried servants are constantly having orders shouted at them. Melius and Gavin offer an alternative vision of family life, one which doesn’t involve direct descent, but which does involve a great deal more love.

Morbid interiors - the Baron's decor reflects his mind
Where Baron and Burgermeister use their children as bargaining pieces to gain position or wealth, Melius seeks to guide Gavin towards the fulfilment of his nascent artistic talents, pointing him towards the Netherlands and the new schools of secular painting emerging there. This was the time leading up to the establishment of the Flemish School under the patronage of the Duke of Burgundy in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, which would reach a pinnacle with the paintings of Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, and a little later the densely populated fantasias of heaven and hell by Hieronymous Bosch. Gavin makes a connection with the visiting players, recognising fellow spirits from whom he might learn. Demy depicts his artists as outsiders, looking in on society from a slight remove. There’s obviously a fair degree of self-portraiture here. These artists are either a part of a group, have the support of a sympathetic patron (Melius in Gavin’s case) or are loners who follow their own muse (Donovan’s piper) and who seem to be not just outside of society but from another world entirely. At the end of the film, Gavin return disconsolately to Melius’ room. It’s still filled with the objects which mirrored the contents of his mind, but its now empty of his spirit. He takes up the pipe and begins to play, and when the players turn up and invite him to join them, he agrees with scarcely a moment’s hesitation. He will travel to the Netherlands, explore new art forms and perhaps attain the almost supernatural power of the piper. A power which is achieved through art or music rather than sorcery, however.

Pleading with power - Melius and Franz
Gavin is also in love with Lisa, the Burgermeister’s daughter, and has secret meetings with her in the enclosed garden of her house, as if they were characters in an Arabian Nights tale. The scene in the garden is one of sun-dappled innocence, the two children finding a moment together in a private paradise before going back out into the fallen world. They are like a new Adam and Eve in this corrupt and plague-ridden land, offering the possibility of a new start. The contrast between innocent youth and debased maturity reflects the exaggerated generational divide of the 60s, a divide which was viewed by some in morally absolute terms. It is the elder Melius, however, who takes up the countercultural cry during his trial, holding out hope for an alternative to a deadening world of grubby power play, materialistic greed and oppressive religion. In what amounts to an explicit statement of Demy’s creed, he looks forward to a future in which we will have learned ‘to tolerate each other’s differences…and even to rejoice in them’. His words are met with snarls and sneering looks of contempt from his accusers. Melius is the outsider within the town walls. He is visibly different in dress and physical appearance, and also suspicious in his book-learning, independent of any institutional support and sanction as it is and thus betokening a dangerous freedom of thought and belief. His is potentially the rational voice of scholarly reason, free from the distorting gravity of power. But the pull of that power on weaker minds proves greater than the vital need for truth, and his fate is thereby written and sentence passed. At the same time, the Hamelin authorities’ willed ignorance condemns the greater part of their town to death.

The one that got away - the piper and the rat
Melius’ dawn execution forms the climax of the film. As he is led to the stake, the piper takes up his recorder once more and begins to draw the children from their early morning beds. It’s a symbolic awakening, leading them into a new dawn whilst their parents sleep or watch the execution, and is in contrast with his enchantment of the rats, which took place in darkness, with the powers that be looking on. Here, the gloomy, benighted world is being left behind even as its violent authority becomes more overt, made manifest in the daylit town square. Donovan’s piper leads the children away from Hamelin, from the sight of Melius’ burning, from the plague, from conscription into foreign wars, and from a future of political oppression and religious persecution. They dance out of the town and into the meadows beyond, singing and playing instruments. Gavin struggles to keep up with them, desperately calling out for Lisa, but to no avail. And then, in the blink of an eye or the splicing edit of a frame, they disappear in a solar flare of lens glare. The piper’s act is seen as one of salvation rather than of terrible revenge for the duplicity of the burghers in not paying him for ridding the town of the plague rats. This mercenary aspect to the old tale is not a significant factor in the film. When the payment initially agreed upon is refused, and the piper turns down a derisory alternate sum offered by the Burgermeister after the rats have been washed away in the river, his reaction is akin to a shrug. It’s as if this was no more than he expected all along. His salvation of the town from the plague is instantly forgotten, the onlookers drifting off with little more than awkward and muted thanks. He communes with a single rat which has been left behind, just as Gavin will be at the end. His otherness is further evinced by the genuine empathy he seems to exhibit towards this reviled creature. It’s an exchange which seems more genuine than those he’s had with the humans he’s encountered here. But his reaction is one of sadness rather than anger or disgust, and gives an insight into his motives for leading the children’s parade at the end.

The pied piper's parades - through the dark town with the rats...

...and out into the dawn meadows with the children
His enchantment of the children occurs as a direct reaction to Melius’ imminent immolation. We don’t see where they go; some fairyland equivalent of Gavin and Lisa’s garden, perhaps. But they go there full of joy, singing and dancing. And anywhere is better than this world, it is suggested. Franz, supervising the execution, hears the flute’s dancing pastoral melody drifting off in the distance, and feels an instinctive loathing for its light-hearted, optimistic airiness. He drowns it out with a music more in tune with the world which he intends to build with his commercial and ecclesiastical allies – the uniform, martial beat of his guards’ snare drums. The pre-final credits historical summary, setting the film in context in classical Hollywood style, looks forward to the atrocities of the religious persecutions and inquisitions to come, which Melius’ execution anticipates. With the statement that they would ‘remain without parallel until this century’ we are brought into the present, and the contemporary relevance of this fable is made plain. The bowl of the guards’ helmets has a stormtrooper curve, with horned metal spikes at the sides giving it an extra satanic embellishment. The execution of Melius’, the Jew, and the suspicion cast upon the players, who are referred to contemptuously as gypsies, bring to mind Nazi genocidal murder and the repeated demonising of outsiders and ethnic groups as a verminous ‘other’ throughout history. The chaos which descends on Hamelin at the end of the film, with people leaving on wagons piled high with their belongings, also brings to mind the mass displacement caused by warfare, ancient and modern. If the piper has led the children away from the world until it is a fit place for them to live in then, Demy suggests, that world has not yet come into being. In some ways, then, this is another 70s film about the failure of the 60s countercultural dream. It’s a sobering conclusion to this brightly coloured fable with a heavy and brooding heart.

Back to the garden and out of the world

1 comment:

vwstieber said...

Fascinating! Thank you, I had not heard of this film before. It looks worth seeking out.