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Greed, corruption, ignorance, and disease. Midsummer, 1349: the Black Death reaches northern Germany. Minstrels go to Hamelin for the Mayor's daughter's wedding to the Baron's son. He wants her dowry to pay his army while his father taxes the people to build a cathedral he thinks will save his soul. A local apothecary who's a Jew seeks a treatment for the plague; the priests charge him with witchcraft. One of the minstrels, who has soothed the Mayor's daughter with his music, promises to rid the town of rats for the fee. The Mayor agrees, then reneges. In the morning, the plague, the Jew's trial, and the Piper's revenge come at once. Written by
Uncharacteristically bleak Demy film is flawed but decent, on the whole
Jacques Demy, at his best, was one of those directors who, like Charlie Chaplin, Akira Kurosawa, Jim Jarmusch, or Ernst Lubitsch, could ascend to the ranks of the greats without possessing the immense intellectual and artistic faculties of many of his contemporaries (i.e. Bergman, Tarkovsky, Godard, Pasolini, Antonioni, Buñuel, Bresson, et cetera). Unfortunately, Demy was never as consistent or as prolific as Chaplin or Kurosawa, for instance, who released one good-to-great film after another for such an extensive career. Nevertheless, films like "Lola" and particularly "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" showed that cinema could be masterful without being artistically ambitious. Like Ozu, Demy proved that a true masterpiece could derive from emotional expressiveness, not only intellectual expressiveness.
In addition to this emotional depth, the other impressive facet of Demy's cinema was, of course, his stylistic abilities. "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" is truly one of the most stylistically impressive films ever made; visually sumptuous on a level entirely of its own. "The Young Girls of Rochefort" also demonstrates Demy's capacity for stylistically rich and luxurious cinema. We can even see it as early as "Le bel indifférent", his 1957 short film based on a Cocteau play.
Resplendent visuals and extreme emotional potency these two things Demy did as well as just about anyone to ever sit in a director's chair. "The Pied Piper", therefore, was a bit perplexing to me. It wasn't by any means poorly filmed, but like "The Model Shop", Demy's other previous film made outside of France, it simply lacked his usual flare for lush and lavish visuals. By comparison to his French films, "The Pied Piper" is very mundane, aesthetically speaking.
As for the emotional potency, there is very little. There's not much plot, which in and of itself is absolutely fine by me, but the film seems to lack the emotional punch that we're used to from Demy, although naturally that will vary from person to person, to some degree.
Furthermore, although the film is definitely a fantasy, which is in keeping with Demy's last film, "Donkey Skin", it is really quite gloomy in its mood. Demy, who is usually so filled with life and energy, is quite dreary here. Of course, "The Model Shop", an American film, was also rather dull in tone and lifeless compared to his usual work, so perhaps Demy is a product of his environment. Perhaps his milieu determines the nature of his films. Working in France, his films tend to be filled to the brim with warmth and vibrancy. Outside of France, he seems to be another filmmaker all together.
"The Pied Piper" is also extremely cynical. Demy, who has always been the classic romantic, takes a completely different look at humanity in this film. Instead of his characteristic enthusiasm for life and romantic fervor, "The Pied Piper" is deprived of anything that could be perceived as the kind of life-affirming fun and joyousness that permeated most of his previous films. Truly, he is unrecognizable here.
The film, which is set in Germany in the 1300s, satirizes the Catholic Church and politicians, among other things, and paints a very grim portrait of humanity. It stars Jack Wild, John Hurt, Donald Pleasence, and others, including Donovan, who composed and performed the music for the film. As far as that goes, let's just say he's no Michel Legrand. One of the most ridiculous aspects of the film was the way that '60s/'70s culture so obtrusively pervaded a film that was meant to be set in the 14th century. Throughout the film, Donovan plays music on a style of six-string guitar that I'm almost certain did not exist at the time, and the music he plays sounds so laughably like the '60s/'70s that it became difficult to take anything I was seeing seriously. Generally a period piece makes an effort to disguise the modernity of its production, but not here.
At times this film reminded me of the later work of Roberto Rossellini, such as "Blaise Pascal", "Cartesius", and especially "The Age of the Medici". Needless to say, those were historical films, and Demy's film is a fantasy, but the style and tone of the films are similar in some ways.
While "The Pied Piper" is not truly a musical, Donovan's score and the songs he plays on a few occasions during the film certainly are a large part of defining the overall feel of the film, and he simply can't do for "The Pied Piper" what Legrand was able to do for "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" or even "The Young Girls of Rochefort". Donovan's music here just isn't very good, and it contributes nothing of any real value to the film.
At the end of the day, this film represents to me the paragon of mediocrity. It is certainly not a bad film, and certainly not a good one. The most interesting parts of the film are the social commentary and satire that Demy delivers with a surprisingly scathing and uncompromising bluntness, but even there, the film doesn't really say anything new or different than what we've seen many times before in cinema: Authority is corrupt and human vice takes root where man attempts to attain or maintain power. Demy exposes religious officials' use of apparent piety and ecclesiastical values as a thinly veiled disguise for greed and immorality. This really isn't anything original or profound in terms of new ideas in cinema, but it's interesting coming from Demy, who I wouldn't have pegged for this kind of cynicism.
I can't say I'd recommend this film, but I don't think it's a real waste of time either. There will inevitably be those with whom the film clicks, but I'm guessing that the majority of experienced filmgoers won't take much away from this one.
RATING: 5.00 out of 10 stars
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