As a movie, King of Hearts is more pageant than story. (To add to the enchantment, de Broca contrives to have circus animals wandering the streets; even the British soldiers are costumed in kilts.) As a cultural artifact, however, the movie is less a relic than a symptom. Set to a lilting score by Georges Delerue that shamelessly pastiches his music for Jules and Jim, King of Heartsmanaged to conflate a topical anti-militarism with the sentimental glorification of mental illness already percolating through mid-'60s popular culture in the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, movies like Morgan!and A Fine Madness, and even the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha. Indeed, given its notion of schizophrenia as a form of defensive role-playing, King of Hearts is nearly a pop exegesis of R.D. Laing's anti-psychiatry. These adorable crazies are like children who never tire of play: Pierre Brasseur, the ripest piece of Camembert, impersonates a lunatic impersonating a general; Bates's love interest is provided by a very pert and pretty Geneviève Bujold, zany enough to imagine herself a virginal hooker. (The importance of her fantasy brothel suggests a diluted version of Jean Genet's The Balcony.)
This cutie-pie be-in opened in the U.S. during the full flowering of hippiedom in the very Summer of Love ("The arena of the spectacle might just as well be Central Park," Andrew Sarris wrote in the Voice) and achieved bona fide cult status in the early '70s, evidently running for five years at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge, among other college towns. (In New York, King of Heartssucceeded the wildly successful Pink Flamingos as the Elgin's midnight attraction in January 1974, lasting a mediocre 14 weeks before being yanked for the redoubtable Freaks.) The movie's middlebrow destiny may be considered fulfilled by its own transformation into a Broadway musical that ran 48 performances in late 1978.
What's most striking about King of Hearts today is the cost-free detachment of its specious whimsy: There's a blithe Hitler joke, several farcical executions, and an exceedingly high body count. "Don't you think these actors are a bit over-the-top?" one wacko remarks upon watching the British and German armies slaughter each other at close quarters. Not really. The new 35mm print, as customary with Film Forum revivals, is impeccable.
King of Hearts
Directed by Philippe de Broca
Written by Daniel Boulanger
May 9 through 15, at Film Forum
Only the Strong Survive
Directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker
Opens May 9
Elsewhere on the Viet-era nostalgia front is the latest D.A. Pennebaker-Chris Hegedus documentary, Only the Strong Survive. This sunny paean to the mainly Memphis- and Chicago-based soul luminaries of the '60s and '70s lacks the journalistic hook of Standing in the Shadows of Motown, but there are moments that will induce the susceptible to break into a big foolish grin. Carla Thomas still sounds like her 20-year-old self, Ann Peebles looks ageless, and Wilson Pickett's personality has scarcely lost its gravelly effervescence. I'd have welcomed more archival footage (Pennebaker did, after all, document Otis Redding's epochal performance at the Monterey Pop Festival), but that would be asking for another movie.
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