As the revolutionary sixties drew to a close, Jacques Demy, known by most for his notoriously sugary musicals, attempted to distill the final anxieties of the era into an eerie, leftist folktale. Made in 1972 between Donkey Skin (another Demy fairytale) and A Slightly Pregnant Man, Demy’s The Pied Piper is adapted from Robert Browning’s poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin, but with significant and absurd embellishment. Whereas the poem follows only the classic story of a mystical piper who rids a town of rats and, after he is refused his payment, its children, Demy’s adaptation is a roving movie with at least five individual plot threads. If nearly half a dozen extra plots weren’t enough, Demy also adds the ever present backdrop of the plague, all tackled in under 90 minutes. The movie’s construction feels at once stretched thin and overflowing, the perfect recipe for a movie to be relegated to the shadow of Demy’s other, more bombastic work. However, this isn’t a just fate for The Pied Piper and though I wouldn’t even begin to allege that the film is any sort of undiscovered masterpiece, I will make an argument for its worth as a deranged, razor sharp, explosive oddity that will live rent free in my head forever.
If you were to put a gun to my head and tell me to write the most on the nose movie possible about the Covid-19 pandemic, I couldn’t outdo Demy’s The Pied Piper. I won’t keep harping on this, we’ve all had enough of “look how this old movie about a plague is just like the actual plague.” I felt as though Demy had returned from the grave to beat me over the head and it bears mentioning, though not repeating. Almost certainly Demy’s most political work, The Pied Piper broaches a laundry list of issues, from sexism to anti-Semitism to classism with the Black Death acting as a pressure cooker. Trapped within the walls of Hamelin, a village miraculously spared from the plague, its inhabitants navigate a collection of strange and overlapping struggles begin to fester, finally culminating in a horrendous act of violence. The town’s buffoonish Baron (a scenery chewing Donald Pleasance), his war-crazed son (John Hurt), and the fittingly named Burgomeister Poppendick (Roy Kinnear) selfishly fumble their way to ruin, dragging Hamelin’s populus with them. All this while Melius the Alchemist (Michael Hordern) and his lovestruck adolescent apprentice Gavin (Jack Wild) make fruitless efforts to find a cure for the plague. See any modern parallels yet? Other threads follow an acting troupe, the arranged marriage of a child, and a gaggle of vindictive priests. Almost relegated to a background player amongst all of the aforementioned chaos is the Pied Piper himself, played by musician and famed hippie Donovan, who composed the music for the film.
This strange brew, an adaptation of a children’s fairytale that spends a majority of its runtime satirizing the Church, coalesces into a perplexing beast that I can only describe as the love child of The Seventh Seal and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Demy navigates his tangled web of fantastical farce with a less than steady hand, but still one seasoned enough to prevent the movie from becoming an unfocused mess of half-baked ideas. Rather than succumb to the chaos, The Pied Piper is something of a cinematic interpretation of a medieval tapestry, a spattering of colorful, juvenile illustrations that’s intriguing because of its shortcoming rather than despite them. To create this feeling, Demy makes extensive use of long takes, often panning from one plotline to another and having characters from other narrative threads moving about in the background of unrelated scenes. Even though this isn’t always done cleanly, it manages to keep the film from feeling fractured. The French auteur’s choice to cast a Scottish pop star is a strange one, but when considered alongside The Pied Piper’s roving structure and other eccentricities, it begins to make a certain amount of sense. Rather than be the focus of the movie that bears his name, the Pied Piper is a guide to which the audience can latch onto. In this way, the casting of someone as recognizable and distracting as Donovan serves to further orient viewers rather than distract them. Additionally, casting a flower power icon as a musician that leads an entire generation of youths away from their self-devouring society is too good an opportunity to pass up.
Demy doesn't take any chances when it comes to making sure his audience understands that his Hamelin is a microcosm of contemporary society and vehicle for him to make clear his often subtle political opinions. Compared to the rest of his work, The Pied Piper is about as subtle as a bunch of rats exploding out of a cathedral-shaped cake. That does, of course, happen in the movie and elicited a fair amount of laughter on my part. Never has Demy’s association with the left bank of the French New Wave been so clear or his pessimism so blatant. In fact, the last vestige of the escapist, fantastical world that Demy spent most of his career creating are the images. With cinematography by Peter Suschitzky of The Empire Strikes Back and Naked Lunch fame, production design by Assheton Gordon, and delightfully ridiculous costumes by Vangy Harrison, The Pied Piper winds up looking like Ingmar Bergman’s take on the decor of a Mellow Mushroom. The colorful modernity of hippie culture seeps seamlessly into 14th century Germany. As of now (at least to my knowledge), there is no worthwhile restoration of the film, but it could certainly benefit quite a bit from it.
Unfortunately, the unrestored visuals are a harbinger for the rest of The Pied Paper. Despite all of the movie’s absurdities and its bombastic political statements, it remains lightweight and undercooked. The only moment in which the movie truly reaches the heights I feel like it’s capable of reaching is in its finale, in which Demy cuts between the Piper leading Hamelin’s children to oblivion and an execution, capturing the grim ambiguity that makes the original fairy tale so memorable and dipping his toes into a surrealist nightmare. As the inevitable all came to pass, the movie finally hit me the way I had hoped it would. Then, all of a sudden, it ended. With little fanfare, an opening crawl explains the misguided violence that followed the Piper’s departure and even subtly references the Holocaust, which is just as bizarre as it sounds. This is indicative of all of The Pied Piper’s shortcomings. A tragicomedy that can’t decide if it wants to be a bittersweet, emotive fairytale or an unflinching political satire, The Pied Piper is Demy stepping outside of his comfort zone and faltering. Like the results of most uncharacteristic artistic ventures, however, The Pied Piper is nothing if not interesting.
“From the Depths” is a recurring column where the central conceit is that I bumble ignorantly into the vast realm of widely unseen movies, scraping the bottom of the barrel in search of hidden gems or, at the very least, interesting disasters.
The Pied Piper is available to rent or buy on Amazon, it is also streaming on Mubi.