King of Hearts plays a royal flush in visual comedy whilst succinctly revealing its war microcosm. In a small picturesque town established in France, towards the end of the First World War, a squadron of Imperial German troops implement an explosive booby trap in the conspicuous “blockhouse” that will obliterate the entire vicinity when the “knight strikes midnight”. Its inhabitants desperately escaping in a flurry of fear. With the town now abandoned, a nearby Scottish French-speaking soldier is sent at the behest of his commanding officer to disarm the bomb before it detonates. However, in the midst of the mass scarper, the local asylum is left unlocked, resulting in the patients leaving their confinements and inhibiting the roles of the townspeople. The soldier, unbeknown to their mentalities, has no reason to doubt their way of living and must find the bomb swiftly whilst dealing with the surreal pageantry on display, whom crown him the “King of Hearts”.
De Broca’s comedy-drama war feature Le Roi de cœur, is an absurdist’s perspective of post-First World War disillusionment, and an extraordinarily phantasmagorical splendour at that. The cluster of joyous lunatics freely living their lives momentarily symbolise the societal impact that the war has had on several nations, France in particular. The British and German rivalry destroying the country whilst its inhabitants forced to watch their civilisation crumble, clinging onto limited cheer. However, aside from the introductory ten minutes that was unable to immediately establish a specific tone, de Broca alongside Boulanger’s sparse screenplay manages to transform the bleak hostility of war into a slapstick-inspired comedy that harks back to the silent shenanigans of Chaplin creations. Think ‘City Lights’ meets ‘Alice in Wonderland’.
For the most part, King of Hearts remains uplifting through absurdism, providing distraction from terror by reinstating the colourful comedy of French cinema. Whilst not appreciated back in ‘66 upon its theatrical release, to which hardly anybody submitted attendance, it has since gained popularity in hindsight. Why? Well, to be honest, it’s rather funny. The visual comedy alone has a unique blend of British comedy classics, like ‘Dad’s Army’ and ‘Monty Python’ collaborations, and intellectual optical stability. It never resorts to pure slapstick just to conjure a laugh or two. The surreal lunacy of the entire situation and its eventual escalation, vivid characterisations included, exudes a prompt whimsicality that acts as a contagion for joy. Sure, performing acrobatic stunts on the town’s clocktower ingrains Chaplin to a heavier degree. Yet the majority of the feature’s runtime balances cultural significance with buoyant humour excellently. A few darker moments, such as mercilessly shooting various individuals at point-blank range, do not necessarily merge with the substantially larger comedic tones. However, they provide constant reminders that this is undoubtedly a war film at its core. Consequently, these acts of horror should be rightfully displayed.
The inherent problem with an absurdist’s joke like these merry lunatics, is that it’s overstretched for an entire film. King of Hearts is a one concept comedy. There’s only so many occasions the same gag can be repeated before it becomes exhausted. Unfortunately the second act traverses that monotony with Plumpick, perfectly portrayed by Bates with exquisite exaggerative body acting, adhering to the playful townspeople whilst adamant in locating the bomb.
Still, despite the repetitive nature of its humour, King of Hearts remains a refreshingly absurd comedy on a devastating historical event. De Broca’s clear direction cements the surrealist nature of said concept whilst ornately injecting culture and characterisation into its hilarity as well. That, right there, is a royal flush.