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Whimsy may be the most difficult thing to pull off in a movie. Maybe that’s because filmmaking is so arduous that a casual, lackadaisical approach in which nothing is taken too seriously is almost impossible. If it is generally true that few things are harder to sustain than a light touch, when there is little pretense that the events could happen in reality, the results are likely to feel more effete than charming. Thus, built on a mountain of contrivances and with no connection to reality beyond the location and costumes, the popular success of Philippe de Broca’s King of Hearts deserves attention just for overcoming that expectation.  

In a French town at the end of World War I, the retreating Germans booby-trap a store of explosives to go off at midnight. Nearby English forces, aware of the plot, send Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates) to defuse the bomb, even though he knows nothing about explosives. When he arrives in the town, it is deserted except for a host of lunatics loose from the local asylum. Unable to get any information from them, Plumpick scampers from one fruitless encounter to another in supposedly comic confusion. He is “crowned” king by the inmates, who fairly ooze frothy savoir faire. Much complicated back-and-forth with the English and German troops ensues as De Broca attempts to hide that the action is in pause until the moment for the “big bang” arrives. After it does, everything peters out to an anti-climactic, ooh-la-la ending.

The village of Senlis, where the film was shot, works like an oversized stage setting and is suitably lovely. The cinematography is nicely textured. The lunatics’ costumes are witty, even if the actors overdo the theatrical looniness a bit. Bates does his best to yield some comic substance from his underdeveloped character, but he is not helped by the almost incomprehensible English dialog. (All of the characters speak in their native languages.) Pert in her tutu, Genevieve Bujold’s brief appearances as a virginal tightrope walker provide some charm. If the rest of the cast were similarly engaging, the movie might achieve the effervescence De Broca presumably intended. Instead, we get champagne without the bubbles.

Of course, to complain about the consciously ridiculous is itself ridiculous, but that does not mean you have to accept the frenzied prancing about, much less enjoy it. Made in 1966, King of Hearts acquired cult status in the ’70s and it is indicative that many of my high school classmates loved it and tried to convince me to see it. Now that I have, I suspect my allergic reaction to the self-conscious giddiness would have been just as acute. In its all-too-obvious message that the “real world” is much crazier than supposed lunacy, King of Hearts is not quite as cloyingly cute as Disney, but its adolescent pseudo-sophistication is in the same dismal territory of calculated infantilism.