The marque of the newly restored Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington caught my eye as I was driving through town on Saturday night. Barrington - locals consider the "Great" pretentious - is a thriving, dare I say happening place in the southern Berkshires, with half a dozen eateries alone that serve sushi. Bistros and art galleries sprout where not so very long ago stood shabby storefronts and venerable Mom and Pop stores. The town has always been a little funky, a place where for many years the neighborhood lunch spot featured sandwiches named for favorite son Arlo Guthrie and Doonesbury character Zonker Harris, and its renaissance has brought with it a faster, urban pace and upscale sensibilities that do not always go easily with rural values and attitudes.
Yesterday, though, I might have been driving through town as it was in the sixties, before commercial space on Main Street started to command New York rents, for I noted on the Mahaiwe's marque with pleasure that the Monday night film this coming week will be King of Hearts (Philippe de Broca's classic film Le Roi de Coeur).
King of Hearts was a cult classic for the generation before mine, famous for running for 5 years straight at the Central Square Cinemas in Cambridge, Massachusetts during the 1970s. It has often been paired with Harold and Maude as two of the great absurd films of that era, and both movies were introduced to me by one of my High School history teachers as part of a memorable 20th century history class in 1985.
The film is set in a small French village in the waning days of the Great War, and begins as the Germans are evacuating the town and placing explosives in a bunker wired to the antique clock in a bell tower where a mechanical knight that chimes the hour at midnight will detonate the charge after the British have marched in. The villagers flee and a garbled message from the French Underground prompts the Scottish troops to send poor Private Plumpick (played by Alan Bates) and his two carrier pigeons to investigate. He enters the village on one side as the last of the Germans are leaving the other, and is knocked unconscious by a falling telegraph pole. When he awakes he discovers that the world has turned upside down. Circus animals wander placidly beyond their open cages, a self-styled "duke of clubs" and his "duchess" promenade in cape and gown, and a beautiful young courtesan played by captivating ingenue Genevieve Bujold walks a tightrope. It is lunacy, but a very benign and whimsical sort, for no one in their hurry to leave the town remembered the inmates of the asylum, and they have emerged in child-like wonder to make the doomed village their own.
As the film proceeds, the question of sanity and which is more rational - the delusional inmate who intentionally retreats into this fantastic pageant or the soldier mired in a war of attrition that cannot be stopped and where the individual has no value. There is a moment when comedy gives way to parable when Private Plumpick, now the "King of Hearts", tries to lead his subjects the inmates out of the doomed village but they know better than he what madness lies beyond the walls and retreat back to their world. After all, the King of Hearts is also called the Suicide King.
The film was released in the United States overdubbed in English, but is also available in French with subtitles. If we can get a sitter, we'll spend tomorrow night taking it all in once again on the big screen at the Mahaiwe.