Carnival in Flanders

‘I thought they were going to rape and pillage. When is it going to start?’

Carnival in Flanders was made in 1935 and directed by Jacques Feyder. It is a comedy set in 1616 in a Flemish town.

The town gets a message that the Duc D’Olivares and his escort of Spanish soldiers will be billeted on the town for the night. The Mayor and the rest of the Town Council are terrified that the Spaniards will rape and pillage in their town and so the townswomen – led by the Mayor’s wife – hatch a plan to save the village. They will claim that the Mayor has just died and the town is in mourning and thereby hope that the Spaniards will leave them in peace.

The stage is therefore set for this delightful comedy about collaborating with the enemy. Obviously the film was made before the second war when collaborating with the enemy caused untold misery and opened wounds which in many cases have still not healed. But the film must be viewed as having been made before that time.

The cast of characters is delightful. There is the fat, pompous Mayor and his cowardly fellow burghers, there is the Mayor’s smart, sly wife played by Francoise Rosay (Jacques Feyder’s wife), the Duc himself, his travelling companion, a fearsome friar telling tales of the inquisition, the Duc’s pet dwarf who travels with two performing monkeys, there is the group of wives of the Town Council who relish their freedom to fraternise with the Spanish soldiers.

The film is beautifully shot in black and white, with every scene framed and lit like one of the Flemish or Dutch masters – Frans Hals or Breughel. In fact, one of the characters is Jean Breughel who is painting a portrait of the Mayor and his colleagues and is desperately in love with the Mayor’s daughter.

Although a comedy, the scenes where the townsfolk are envisioning how the Spaniards might behave is shocking – babies are bayoneted, women are graphically stripped and raped, houses are burned and destroyed, food and clothing stolen as the soldiers cavort and carouse.

The film is very funny and brims with witty lines and is way ahead of its time in its portrayal of strong, independent women who run rings around their menfolk (and the Spanish soldiers) in order to protect their town but also get some fun into the bargain – the Spanish soldiers are fun and sexy naughty boys and the women take every advantage of their brief freedom.

There are wonderful farcical moments: the Duke insists on paying his respects to the ‘dead’ Mayor who is forced to lie still in his own bed surrounded by candles while his wife flirts mercilessly with the Duke. The dwarf gets his own back on those who poke fun at him by demanding to be carried on their shoulders so he doesn’t get his feet dirty. The Innkeeper’s wife billets four handsome soldiers and visits their rooms in turn, ostensibly to darn their clothes but in reality to romp with each of them. The fearsome Inquisitor refuses alcohol but soon relents and regales the company with tales of how he used to torture heretics. As he leaves at the end he hands a bundle of indulgences to one of the women – ‘these are real,’ he says, ‘ignore all the others.’

It makes such a change to see a film without a minute of CGI or fakery. There are glorious costumes, real people and crowds, solid scenery, a witty, thoughtful script and an important message which resonates down the years of how putting the women in charge might not be such a bad thing after all.

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