Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
Animator and actor Paul Grimault, who appeared in Vigo's L'Atalante (1934), suggested to
Jacques Prévert just after the last war that they tackle an adaptation of the Hans Christian
Andersen story The Shepherdess And The Chimneysweep. The result was a remarkably little-known
(at least amongst English and American film lovers) animated feature, La Bergère et Le
Ramoneur (1952) reissued in 1979 as Le Roi et L'oiseau. It has also been called by the
considerably more crass title The Curious Adventures of Mr Wonderbird, or even the bald Mr
Wonderbird To The Rescue, for its rare appearances on video. The title tangle reflects the film's
obscurity in the English speaking world, as well as the difficulty in categorising a work that is at
once a children's film, a polemic fantasy and a uniquely French cultural piece.
Prévert, better known as the collaborator with Marcel Carne on such films as Les Enfants du paradis (1945), brought a distinctive brand of poetry and wit to the project, which in its first incarnation took six years to complete. Money problems and disagreements with the producers caused it to be issued, but with Prévert's name removed, in 1952. It was only after 20 years that Grimault was able to see the project completed to his full satisfaction, whereupon it promptly won the prestigious Louis Delluc prize.
The action takes place in the imaginary kingdom of Takicardia, ruled by the unpopular King - whimsically named "Charles V and three makes eight and eight makes 16." The cheerful, omnipresent Mr Bird (Brasseur), who supports and guides the hero and heroine, narrates the action in retrospect. King Charles (a curious mixture of Mayerling's Crown Prince Rudolf, Ben Turpin and Mussolini) is a squint eyed, conspicuously vain, autocrat who "hated everyone, and everyone hated him right back. He is fond of shooting and capturing birds, living apparently without queen or immediate family in a labyrinthine palace.
After an abortive, shooting interlude, (Mr Bird has already shown us the grave of his wife "killed in an unfortunate hunting accident") and a witty scene during which he confronts a nervous painter, Charles retires to his "private and secret apartments" on his palace's 96th floor. Here he contemplates his latest portrait, and those of the chimneysweep and shepherdess already hanging there. He is in love with the image of the girl, viewing that of her painted companion with disdain. That night, while the King sleeps, all of the portraits come alive and, to avoid an impromptu marriage with the royal, the sweep and shepherdess make off. Meanwhile the King's own portrait has become animated, discovering its own love for the sweet girl. He disposes of the real king down a convenient trapdoor, assumes the throne and pursues the elopers with all the apparatus of the state.
The pursuit, and eventual capture of the two, is what occupies the rest of the film. Grimault sets the action amidst the passageways, steps, waterways, roofs and basements of the grand palace. Its baroque setting, with its distinctive use of perspective, recalls the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico. The design of the palace, and its rooftop scenes, probably influenced the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's realisation of Cagliostro's castle in his 1979 anime of the same name. For Charles' castle is a wonderful invention, characterised by floating and elevating thrones, policemen in bowler hats, huge galleries, canals, and an exotic skyline of spires, balustrades and minarets. It is also a place of danger. Trapdoors open at the touch of a button, eliminating those who displease the king - another element taken over by Miyazaki, incidentally. The king also uses a robot, the machinery of repression made concrete, to pursue his love. Its lumbering yet delicate presence reminds the viewer of the metal gardeners in Miyazaki's Laputa: Castle In The Sky (1986) as well as the more recent American release The Iron Giant (1999).
Prévert's script juxtaposes different values, or 'arts', and asks us to draw our own conclusions. Do we prefer the vanity and artificiality of portraiture, self-indulgent architectural follies, and grandiose self-admiration� or the simple charm of a birdcall, a blind street beggar's hurdy-gurdy, the simplicity of true love? The superb score by Wojciech Kilar complements this with a lovely, plaintive piano main theme, as well as a range of parodic marches for 'royal use'. (One especially relishes the automated band in the metal giant's chest.) Prévert is also concerned with the atmosphere of oppression, against which Mr Bird represents liberty. In the aftermath of the Second World War, life under the Occupation was still fresh. King Charles' secret police (who at one point develop the disconcerting ability to fly like black bats) are bumbling, but still intimidating. Takicardia may be an incompetent state, but still one whose determined overthrow will reduce everything to rubble.
In the basement of the palace, where the two lovers eventually are cornered, are starving lions and a blind musician. "Does the world really exist and the sun really shine?" he asks plaintively, before adding, "They saw a bird? There must be hope." In an extraordinary scene, the beasts waltz to the hurdy-gurdy man's instrument, being dissuaded from eating the chimneysweep by the power of his music, before the bird's propagandistic speech raises their ire and they assist in the royal downfall. Theirs is a literal underworld, one whose muted despair and foreboding recalls Prévert's scripts for Quai des brumes (1938) or the doomed waiting of Le Jour se lève (1939), if redeemed here by the power of art.
In an interview (Jeune Cinéma no.128), Grimault stressed the importance of his film as not just being for children but in its way, as unique a work as the animations of the Americans, he hoped, a radical and long lasting achievement. Viewing it today it is hard not to disagree with him, and one hopes it will appear on DVD to delight a new audience.