When Judge Clark Douglas plays a magical pipe, rodents follow him. Come to think of it, they also follow him when he's not playing a pipe...
Come children of the universe, let Donovan take you far, far away.
I'm not joking. That charge was the film's actual tagline. Anyway, on with the review.
Facts of the Case
In the year 1349, there were a bunch of friendly Germans who lived together in a very troubled German village. They mumbled and complained about life a lot, and tried to avoid making their evil government leaders and their evil church leaders angry. Men of authority weren't their only problem. The city was also becoming infested with black rats, which were rumored to be carrying the black plague (for obvious logical reasons). The people were desperate for a solution, and they turned to a potential savior: The Pied Piper (played by the musician Donovan). This piper is more than willing to help the people…but at what cost?
Jacque Demy's The Pied Piper is an unholy mess of a movie. It has problems in nearly every single department, with Demy's direction being the first culprit. From the very beginning, it becomes clear that the film has issues. Demy attempts to capture the scope of the story, to accentuate atmosphere and locations. In doing so, he more or less drowns out his story and his characters. He films in wide shots that focus on nothing in particular, so sometimes you have to look closely to figure out where sounds are coming from. The dialogue is frequently muffled and incoherent, leaving the viewer straining to catch tiny snatches of dialogue. Not that it's worth the effort…much of what is said here is little more than aimless chatter. The film has the feel of a really bad Robert Altman film, though that's a generous and kind criticism.
The story of The Pied Piper is a well-known little morality tale (originally a poem) that could make a rather effective little short film. Unfortunately, Demy's ninety-minute adaptation is far too long, and passes most of the time by simply providing a general feel of life during the time. This is mostly rather uninteresting, because it's mostly rather one-dimensional. The heroes and villains all play their parts quite simplistically. This is the sort of film where a guard will actually declare, "Now see here…I've burned three witches this year with less evidence than I've got on you. You'd better watch yourself." Or how about this gem from a wicked government official: "I'm trying to think of something we can tax. What items haven't we taxed yet?"
That brings me to the number one rule of films set in medieval times: try as hard as you can not to remind viewers of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Granted, this film pre-dates that one by a couple years, but it's still unforgivably silly. Demy is willing to sacrifice his story and his characters in favor of giving us a general feel of life in 12th Century Germany. Unfortunately, the general costume and set design is so unconvincing that this isn't of much interest, either. If they were going to call the film something other than The Pied Piper, I suspect the title would have been The Strange German Village in Which Everyone Wears a Funny Hat. You know what they say…the funnier the hat, the less funny the person wearing it. Believe me, there are a lot of very, very, very funny hats in this movie. While watching the film, my wife and I had quite an enjoyable time spotting all the silly headgear contained in the film. It's more than a little difficult to take a villain's evil speech seriously when it looks like they resemble a fruit basket. The film is in desperate need of sharper, more intimate direction (along with more authentic art direction). One can only imagine what Demy's spouse Agnes Varda could have done with material like this.
The film does have some noteworthy names in the cast, but none of the performances here stand out as anything particularly special. The talented John Hurt (Alien) is out-acted by his exceptionally silly hat. Donald Pleasance (The Great Escape) is always welcome, but his role here is somewhat forgettable. His presence in this movie brought back memories of John Badham's similarly problematic Dracula (which was admittedly more enjoyable than this film). The casting of Donovan in the title role is not particularly successful. Donovan exhibits very little charisma or acting skill in the role, though he's quite good during the musical scenes. The the part was suited to Donovan's particular talents, the film hands him a guitar in addition to the pipe and permits him to sing from time to time. This doesn't serve any purpose other than (like most things in this film) finding a way to kill time.
The DVD transfer is somewhat weak, as the film still contains a lot of scratches and flecks. There is some significant color bleeding, and Demy's overuse of fog in many scenes keep an unfortunate haze over everything. The DVD is a bare bones release, with absolutely no special features of any kind. I am curious to know what exactly Demy was thinking when he decided to make this movie.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's odd that the film's strongest moments are the anachronistic ones. They may seem simple and silly, but there's a gentle pleasure every time the Pied Piper pulls out his guitar and sings a song for the children in the village. While I sincerely doubt that 12th Century Germans heard many light pop ballads like the ones heard here, I enjoyed the musical moments in this film. Additionally, the scenes that focus on elements of the original story (particularly the scenes of rat-terror) are generally somewhat more effective than the rest of this meandering film.
While I'm sure Demy fans are glad to finally have this film available on DVD, this one strictly for diehard fans of the director or Donovan. Otherwise, The Pied Piper is one to avoid.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Legend Films
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