The progression is from Picasso’s La Famille de Saltimbanques to Brueghel’s The Triumph of Death, Browning’s poem is but a starting point for the removal of the harlequin’s paint. "The year of the Black Death" (1349) is ideal for bringing out the malignant side of Jacques Demy’s enchantment, a troupe of itinerant actors transverse the hippified Dark Ages and pick up the Pied Piper (Scottish pop troubadour Donovan) on the road to Hamelin. The hamlet is sullied even before the rats appear -- the sniveling burgomaster (Roy Kinnear) is about to marry off his barely pubescent daughter (Cathleen Harrison) to the town prick (John Hurt), whose baronial father (Donald Pleasance) spends most of his time starting wars and erecting exorbitant cathedrals ("Salvation has become a costly business these days"). Reminders of the Medieval Inquisition are evident in the clergy, dressed in clotted reds against the darkness of torch-lit chambers; the rabbinical alchemist (Michael Hordern) urges rationalism and gets the Galileo treatment for his trouble, his limping apprentice (Jack Wild) is an aspiring artiste whose sketches don’t quite impress his beloved. Pestilence waits in the wings, a gag-omen comes as Diana Dors frets about the kitchen, surveying her daughter’s wedding preparations: "Have the swans arrived yet?" "No." "About the vultures?" "Oh yes." Demy the sad conjurer, defending innocence in the face of cruelty and in the process exposing the hysteria of The Devils. The Piper, whose tooting had earlier revived the burgomaster’s wan daughter, is hired to summon the rodents sprouting out of the banquet; his response to being refused his payment, simultaneously tender and sinister, shows that Demy picked Donovan not for "Mellow Yellow" but for "The Hurdy Gurdy Man." The debt to The Seventh Seal is returned in Fanny and Alexander, further consequences are felt in Herzog’s Nosferatu, Altman’s Popeye, Robbins’ Dragonslayer. With Roger Hammond, Keith Buckley, and Peter Vaughan.
--- Fernando F. Croce