Paris, 1482. Today is the festival of the fools, taking place like each year in the square outside Cathedral Notre Dame. Among jugglers and other entertainers, Esmeralda, a sensuous gypsy, performs a bewitching dance in front of delighted spectators. From up in a tower of the cathedral, Frollo, an alchemist, gazes at her lustfully. Later in the night, Frollo orders Quasimodo, the deformed bell ringer and his faithful servant, to kidnap Esmeralda. But when the ugly freak comes close to her is touched by the young woman's beauty... Written by
Strangely, there has never been a bad film of Victor Hugo's classic tale, and while this is indeed less successful than Laughton, Chaney or Disney's versions, this French effort is still a surprisingly good and much under-rated film. To get the most out of it, you have to bear in mind that Hugo did not write a horror story but a tale of unrequited love and anguish. There is little of the Gothic on show here; rather, everyone is trapped by a desire for what they are denied.
This is much more 'Notre Dame de Paris' (the novel's actual title) than 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame': Quasimodo probably gets less screen time here than in any of the other films, only dominating the drama in the last third. Instead, as with Hugo, it uses the cathedral of Notre Dame as the thread that binds all social stratas - Kings and beggars, thieves and soldiers, gypsies and alchemists, playwrights and aristocrats - giving a vivid portrait of a time and place half imagined, half real.
Quinn is more of a brute than we're used to seeing in our Quasimodos: unlike Laughton, he's no poetic soul trapped in a broken body but an animal who is given an inkling of what it means to be human. Lollabrigida fares better than usual as Esmerelda, and if their relationship is never moving, the ending, for once taken directly from the novel, is genuinely touching.
There are problems: the dubbing is at times irritating (and there is no French-language option on the disc), while Jean Danet is quite the most embarrassing Phoebus imaginable, stilted, impossibly smug and just plain odd-looking. Some key scenes are poorly staged, most notably Quasimodo's rescue of Esmerelda, while the hunchback is not given a strong entrance. But, if you're willing to take a chance and watch it with an open mind, the pleasant surprises outweigh them.
While not the most lavish version, the scale and colour of the film, particularly in scenes such as the Court of Miracles, gives us a sense of a world around these characters, the addition of CinemaScope and some impressive sets helping to broaden the scale. Delannoy's direction is occasionally imaginative, with a good eye for the Scope frame. The script (co-written by 'Les Enfants du Paradis' Jacques Prevert) is often witty and doesn't shy from the darker tragic tone of the novel. Georges Auric's score, though ill-served by the original sound recording, is also a fine effort.
The Miramax Region 1 DVD transfer is good, with only a few edge enhancement problems, although it seems very slightly cropped in some shots, and the failings of the early CinemaScope lenses does result in an occasional loss of detail in some shots. The DVD even includes one brief torture sequence that has long been cut from many prints, as well as the original theatrical trailer.
Kept out of distribution for years (Disney bought the rights around the time they were working on their version and shelved it), the film has not been able to gain much of a reputation. Indeed, it continues to get short shrift from many critics - 'Time Out's film guide is particularly hostile. But, as they say in Britain, 'Time Out hated it, so it must be good.' And it is - not great, but certainly pretty good.
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