Jacques Demy’s The Pied Piper, like his previous film "Peau d'Ane" released the year before, is a fairy tale, but its tone and mood are completely different. Demy's pessimism, a trademark of his earlier work, seemed to have disappeared in "Les demoiselles de Rochefort" and "Peau d'âne", but returns with glaring revenge in this adaptation of The Pied Piper. This is also probably Demy’s most darker work ever. By moving away from the romanticism of Robert Browning's poem and focusing more on its Grimm Brothers' influence, Demy presents a dirty, gloomy and oppressive palette that seems to have been inspired by Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" with its darkness, wandering entertainers, the plague, the sorcerer, etc. While respecting the basic ingredients of the tale's plot, Demy adds an extra layer to the story, such as the church's corruption crushing anyone involved that could jeopardize its power.
The story of the Pied Piper who gets rid of the town of Hamelin’s rats, reveals a gripping story of evil in the Middle-Ages, a time when millions of people across Europe died of the plague. Demy focuses on the corruption of the church and local town administrators, working together, to support a papal war in Italy and for the town to build a huge cathedral for itself, all this in the midst of the bubonic plague of 1349.
The film begins in Northern Germany when a caravan of Gypsy performers and the Pied Piper are denied access to the town of Hamelin because of fear that they might be carriers of the plague. Inside the gates, Lisa, the wealthy burgormeister ’s fourteen year-old daughter who is to be married to Franz, the burgormeister's aid, lies in a coma while a delegation of clergy is there to give her the last rites. As a last resort the burgormeister summons the local Jewish alchemist, Melius who against the clergy's opinion predicts that the girl is not going to die. Soon after, the Pied Piper’s soothing music is heard coming from outside the gates, as it revives the young girl, encouraging the burgormeister to summon the piper and his friends inside the gates of Hamelin.
There is also another storyline concerning Gavin, Melius' young handycapped assistant who happens to be in love with Lisa, but is powerless to stop her impending marriage. The plague begins to spread in the town of Hamelin via carrier rats and the church accuses Melius, the alchemist of causing it because of his scientific work that supposedly goes against God's will. True to the original story, the piper offers to get rid of the rats, for the price of 1,000 guilds. When the piper plays his magic tune all the rats march out of the town and are drowned in the river. The burgormeister foolishly reneges on his promise to pay the piper triggering a series of unfortunate calamities in which everyone gets their comeuppance.
Demy presents two predominant views; the world of Melius ruled by scientific explanation and the world of the bishops, portrayed as sinister characters dressed in red, as blood, who personify intolerance and ignorance. This is perfectly illustrated during the wedding scene when the bishop refers to the child bride as “an impure human being, whose only way is to follow her husband's rule”.
If The Pied Piper sounds like a heavy film, it most definitely is. The film hardly qualifies as a children’s film and although fascinating, Demy unfortunately does not have the firm control over his material as he had in his earlier films. Rather than staying with his original adult concept, Demy also dwindles between heavy historical moral drama with much lighter scenes influenced by the elements of the original fairy tale source.
Another problem is the total lack of characterization of the Piper, and the removed performance of the popular 60’s pop/folk Scottish singer Donovan in the title role. Typical of the schizoid nature of this film, Demy inserts a series of lighthearted musical interludes (I guess to showcase Donovan’s few talents) which are just embarrassing and clash with the dark tone of the film.
That aside, the film has some very good performances. Donald Pleasance is effective as the Baron. Michael Hordern is both comically grotesque and affecting as the Jewish alchemist. John Hurt is effectively sinister as the evil Franz and Jack Wild, made famous by the musical Oliver! turns an impressive lovely, muted performance as Gavin, the handycapped youngster that almost cements the entire film.
And although The Pied Piper has its flaws, when Demy is at his best he provides some amazing images as in the unforgettable banquet sequence involving a rat infested cathedral-shaped wedding cake and as in the cruel and chilling finale, involving the death of one of the main characters.
Demy’s The Pied Piper remains an overlooked, much ignored work. In a way could almost be considered his swan song, because he has never been able to reach such heights again. Even with its flaws and inconsistencies it is an obvious labor of love that succeeds in many more areas than those in which it fails. I highly recommend it.