The year is 1616 and in the Flemish town of Boom there is some disruption as news reaches them of the approaching Spanish army. They are preparing their carnival celebration which everyone there throws themselves into, but now it seems as though all that will be thwarted if the Spaniards are going to live down to their reputation and smash the place - and the people - up, which the Burgomaster (André Alerme) has convinced himself and the town elders is a certainty. However, his wife Cornelia (Françoise Rosay) has other ideas, and knows precisely how she can prevent the destruction of Boom: all it will take is a dash of feminine wiles to give everybody what they want.
Carnival in Flanders, or La kermesse héroïque as it was originally called, was latterly held up as a classic of between the wars European cinema, but at the time it was not necessarily thus lauded, for its subject mater proved controversial. Even today, its embrace of the theme of collaboration with a military enemy is noticeable and in retrospect not especially helpful when it was released as the Nazis had gained power in Germany and were seeking to expand their influence across the Continent. The director Jacques Feyder certainly saw his career suffer as a result, though the ill-health that plagued him was also a factor in his decline as a potential master of cinema.
Nevertheless, he was rediscovered every so often, largely thanks to the pictorial qualities of this film, which recreated the look of the Old Masters whose paintings were world-renowned from his native Belgium and while not in colour, you had to admit Feyder's skill with his sumptuous visuals went some way to sugaring what seemed to be a very misguided message about getting along with your conquerors. Particularly when those conquerors were fascists, as many regarded the Spanish here as stand-ins for the Nazis (let's not forget Spain would be no stranger to fascism over the following decades either), and in the era of La Resistance this made the director persona no grata.
Yet ironically, the Nazis didn't like the film either, as it could, from a different angle, appear to be sending up the occupiers as gullible chumps whose heads were easily turned by a pretty lady or a barrel of beer - and there were even a couple of officers who were not interested in women at all, preferring needlework in a euphemism not so much thinly disguised as homosexuality, more a great, big, blatant joke. For this reason Feyder and his wife and leading lady Rosay fled France once the Occupation happened, and though he made a slight comeback, his career never recovered from the controversy. Was it easy to forgive the creator his frivolousness in the face of grimmest evil from the perspective of the next century? Evidently it was, as Carnival in Flanders is very well thought of in many quarters.
But those quarters tend to be cineastes who would be aware of Feyder in the first place: he was no, say, Jean Vigo, whose romantic cult status remained assured decades after his death (curiously, his Zero de Conduite shared the same dwarf actor Delphin as this film in a prominent role). It was certainly no hardship to be caught up in the breeziness and cheek of the story of a town of women who seduce and flatter their invaders to ensure their survival, a surprisingly modern take on feckless males who must be compensated for by far more capable females. Yet something about the time this was made and released could not be wholly ignored and made one uncomfortable; add to that the fact that it was not really as hilarious as it seemed to believe it was and you had a film that could leave you cold, if not as cold as the Nazis and the French Resistance alike. It contained a definite charm, with everyone in the cast on the same page as to how to put this across, but the wisdom of the enterprise was troubling when it could be read either way. Music by Louis Beydts.