Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2017
Scott R. Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Le roi de coeur (1933-2004)

Back in the 1970s, when I was an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Barbara, I and about 10,000 other students lived in the most densely populated square mile of practically the whole country, the student ghetto of Isla Vista. This unincorporated bit of land lodged next to the UC campus was crammed full of apartments, inhabited by student renters on 9-month leases. There wasn’t much else there besides row after row of rickety-looking apartment buildings, and certainly very little in terms of commercial businesses. There was the requisite surf shop, a Rexall drug Store, a so-so Mexican restaurant, a hip coffeehouse, a fortified-for-anything branch of the Bank of America (its predecessor having been burned down by rioters a few years before) and what must have been the very first Kinko’s in the whole world. And there was a little two-screen cinema, which had the glorious name The Magic Lantern.

Because it served a virtually exclusively student audience, the Magic Lantern’s line-up of films was somewhat eclectic. I suppose that, along with similar establishments in student and bohemian quarters around the country, it was the quintessential art house cinema. My memories about all this are a bit fuzzy but, in my mind’s view of that era anyway, The Magic Lantern showed a French film called King of Hearts at least once every week, from the beginning of time until the end of time. It took a while until I finally got around to seeing this film, but when I did, I was absolutely enchanted. I had seen nothing like it before. It was magical, it was whimsical, and it was French. With America still enmeshed in Vietnam, the film’s antiwar theme seemed perfect for the time and place. Its plot was fairly simple. In the chaos of World War I, an English soldier (played by a very young Alan Bates) wanders into a town, not knowing that the citizens have abandoned it. The inmates of the local insane asylum have been released and have taken up the roles of the townspeople, thereby leading to a chain of humorously confusing events and situations. Its entire people-who-are-supposed-to-be-insane-are-saner-than-the-people-who-are-supposed-to-be-sane sensibility was perfect for us young, idealistic students trying to make sense of a confusing world.

The cast included some fine French actors as the crazies, including Pierre Brasseur, Jean-Claude Brialy and Michel Serrault. It also featured a Canadian actor in her early 20s, as the childlike Coquelicot, the sort-of love interest for Bates’s character. Her name was Geneviève Bujold, and I confess that I was completely smitten. She was lovely and vulnerable and non-risk-averse and she had the most musical voice I had ever heard. After that performance, in my mind Bujold could do no wrong. I could even forgive her down through the years for transgressions as diverse as starring in Earthquake and Coma and even for botching the chance to be the captain of the Federation starship Voyager.

Looking back now, it seems amazing that Le Roi de coeur did not make my personal top ten list of non-English language films or even my list of great war-as-absurdity films. I suppose, as the years went by, I became a bit embarrassed by how much I had embraced such a shamelessly sentimental and manipulative movie. For decades, I have avoided seeing it again, out of fear that I wouldn’t like it nearly as much as I did the first time, thereby leaving myself without even the memory of loving it.

The man who directed King of Hearts died last Saturday at the age of 71. Philippe de Broca had more than three dozen films to his credit, spanning four-and-a-half decades. His last film, Vipère au poing, premiered in France only a few weeks ago. As evidenced by King of Hearts, which came out in 1966, his films were light, sparkly and laced with gentle humor. He seemed to be partial to costume dramas and spy spoofs, which number among his best-known movies. While King of Hearts was far and away his best-loved film among Americans, the French seemed to have preferred his 1962 movie, Cartouche, with Jean-Paul Belmondo in the title role of an 18th-century Gallic Robin Hood, assisted by his gypsy lady love, Claudia Cardinale. Belmondo also starred in de Broca’s other big hit, 1964’s That Man from Rio which was more or less a James Bond spoof, and four other of his films. Additional hit movies in the 1970s included Le Magnifique and L’Incorrigible. Another I remember with particular fondness was 1978’s Tendre poulet, which in the U.S. was called Dear Inspector. A low-key police murder mystery, its chief appeal lay in the idiosyncratic middle-age romance between detective Annie Girardot and bookish professor Philippe Noiret. A sequel, Jupiter’s Thigh, two years later was less satisfying.

In the trivia department, you might win a bet in a bar with de Broca’s name, by asking who Margot Kidder’s third husband was. (They were married briefly in the 1980s. She starred in his 1984 made-for-American-cable movie Louisiana.) Or by asking who directed Catherine Zeta Jones’s first movie. De Broca gave her her first big break, making her the lead in his 1990 movie Les Mille et une nuits (Scheherazade, in English versions). As noted matter-of-factly by London’s Telegraph in its de Broca obituary, “the film received little acclaim and is best remembered for its enjoyable nude scenes.”

De Broca sometimes gave himself cameos in his own films. He was the man who yelled, “Les aristocrates à la lanterne!” in Cartouche, a Swedish camper in The Devil by the Tail, and a plumber in Le Magnifique. He also had cameos in François Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Claude Chabrol’s directorial debut, Le Beau Serge, considered to be the first French New Wave film. In King of Hearts, de Broca cast himself as the young Adolf Hitler. It was a good joke and, of course, no other character could have been farther away from the actual nature of this gifted and delightful storyteller.

I think it’s finally time to find a copy of King of Hearts and watch it again.

-S.L., 2 December 2004

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