The Hour of the Pig
aka The Advocate
If anyone talks about – less still remembers – The Hour of the Pig now, it’s as a none-too-edifying footnote to Harvey Weinstein’s criminal career, with no less than two of the actresses featured (Sophie Dix and Lysette Anthony) testifying to his behaviour, both alleged and convicted. Which is a shame, as Leslie Megahey’s sole feature film is a real curio, taking on an idiosyncratic subject – animal trials of the Middle Ages – and fashioning a suitably idiosyncratic tale from it. It’s littered with great character actors, a sense of humour both bawdy and keenly witty, and a plot that even makes time for mystery and conspiracy amid its moral, ethical, legal and metaphysical ruminations. As to whether the “truth” it’s based on has any foundation or is just another of the lies peddled off the back of the 1700 Event, well, it is rather selling a “People used to be stupid, ignorant and revolting; thank goodness we’ve since matured” line.
Pincheon: Gentlemen, murder is murder, whether it be committed by a half-witted man or a pig of prodigious learning.
Weinstein also inevitably had his scissors out for the picture itself; apparently, he had the temerity to refer to it as the worst film he was involved in (in 2012). But let’s face it, he was known as a boorish vulgarian pretty much from Miramax’s genesis. His slating something rather suggests it’s worthy of consideration. He resorted to some desperate and faintly ridiculous marketing strategies (requesting audiences not spoil the client’s identity. Perhaps he thought no one would show up if they knew, or labour under the illusion it was a Grisham thriller with The Advocate as title). I saw this on the big screen on its initial release but later had the US DVD, which I bought as the only version available until Cave of Forgotten Films came up with the goods. The Weinstein bodge-up has variously dubbed voices, music changes and cut scenes making it 10 minutes shorter (I’m wondering if this reflects the actual US cinema release version). Weinstein reputedly cut it, in part, to avoid an NC-17 rating (ironically, the uncut UK release is only a 15).
D’Auferre: You know, Maitre, there are things that a country lawyer just has to do. So why don’t you say your peace, pick up the money… and let them hang the beast? It’s only a pig.
The premise, then, is of a hotshot – but not enough to be shittest-hot hotshot in the Big Smoke – young lawyer who arrives in rural Abbeville, expecting to blow everyone away but soon finding himself called upon to defend a porker accused of murder. Richard Courtois (Colin Firth) initially demurs, but the thrust of events, not least his attraction to Moorish gypsy Samira (Amina Annabi), whose pig it is, eventually leads him to submit to the inevitable. He must find his footing in other respects too, his unfamiliarity with Ponthieu law leading to the conviction of accused-witch Jeannine (Harriet Walter). He’s also the recipient of the attentions of the local Seigneur Jehan d’Auferre’s (Nicol Williamson) gormless daughter Filette (Anthony) while enjoying a regular going over from the inn’s tart Maria (Sophie Dix); Courtois only becomes aware the inn is the village brothel when he is set on leaving.
Courtois: Are you telling us, Domini, that in your theology, it is futile to anathematize or execute an insentient beast?
Albertius: N-No, no. The beast may contain a devil, and it’s the devil we curse and the vessel we destroy.
Courtois: A devil in the pig? A devil in the cat that steals the fish? In the locust that destroys the harvest? Is the locust big enough to contain a devil, Domini? A fly?
Albertius: Interesting point about the fly. It was debated for three days at a convocation in Rheims, and no conclusion reached.
Courtois: You don’t really believe everything you’ve been saying in here, do you?
Pincheon: This is monstrous!
Courtois: Do you, Domini?
Albertius: Oh, I believe it, Maitre. Every word of it.
There’s more going on besides, notably the mystery of who was responsible for the Jewish boy’s death, if not the porker (the pig is regularly referred to this way). And what manner of dubiously elite behaviour the Seigneur may be up to, given references to a guild and hunting villagers for sport. Local colour is added by familiar genre faces Donald Pleasance as Pincheon, the seasoned local prosecutor, Michael Gough as Magistrate Boniface, Jim Carter as Courtois’ worldly-wise clerk Mathieu and best of all Ian Holm as randy, erudite priest Albertus; none of the educated population are under any illusions as to the validity of holding animals to humans standards of culpability and justice, but nevertheless go along with the farce to keep up appearances (albeit, most of the public, when it comes to Courtois mocking the idea of a creature showing human motivation, seem as open to scepticism).
Courtois: Maitre Pincheon, are you with all this? Do you go along with being the learned prosecutor of a pig?
Pincheon, who for much of the proceedings appears to be in opposition to Courtois, turns out to be a highly sympathetic character and warns his less-experienced colleague of the dangers of rural life, that “it’s pearls to swine, you know. That’s what they are, these poor country folk. Suspicious, superstitious, selfish, lubricous, salt of the earth, scum of the earth”. The film is, then, inhabiting revisionist territory (per official history) of many of those present being above fear or belief in god and the devil and nonsense superstition. These 15th-century folk may send a witch to burn (or hang), but they don’t believe she’s guilty.
In this way, The Hour of the Pig’s entire canvas becomes one of knowing absurdity, where all but Courtois are either suffering from a collective madness or passively supporting the same. The only solace in such a situation is to escape the insanity of the countryside and return to the respect and refinement of city life. Agenda 30 in action, particularly when the spectre of disease supports such a move…
Magistrate: It is my direction that the person of the she-ass was violated without her consent. She is released without stain to her character.
Were there actual animal trials in Europe between the 13th and 18th centuries (so, for the most part, conveniently behind the barrier of the 1700 Event)? None for murder, it seems. Certainly, the idea goes to emphasise the unenlightened idiocy that once afflicted humanity, back when belief in God and such similar fantasies were rife. If fellow 15th-century French luminary Joan of Arc can be made up, why not animal trials? The picture seems to take a grab-bag approach to medieval events, including the Inquisition (pushing it slightly) and the Black Death (about a century late. Although, in fairness, this may count as the odd case, as instances continued to be reported – again allegedly – until the early 19th century). The treatment of Jews is much discussed, and it seems they’d been regularly expelled (and then returned) from France during the previous century, so this much may be accurate (again, in terms of official history). But why not be fast and loose, since much of it’s likely fabricated anyway. The opening trial of Roger Landrier (Jean-Jacques Charliot), found guilty of relations with a donkey that is, in turn, acquitted, is based on the 1750 case of Jacques Ferron.
Albertius: Anyone who’s read a book has been sent by the Almighty.
Regardless, The Hour of the Pig thoroughly succeeds at lending such accounts an air of verisimilitude. The casual, cheerful hypocrisy of the priesthood goes hand in hand with the ruthless practicality of the courts. As for the landed gentry… It’s in this regard that one might suspect Megahey is either being very careful in missing his targets – so as to avoid a fate that later befell Kubrick – or he’s providing a very carefully woven tapestry that refutes all but the most superficial and “reasonable” forms of conspiracy. Any movie in which the hero drifts off into a disturbed dream of hunting human deer, in which the son of the nobleman is seen to be a twisted child killer, where hooded figures meet in secret to discuss the lie of the land, and in which witnesses are coached to offer the required testimony in court, ought to know better than retreat from such a position.
Instead, the Seigneur, the grandson of an executed Cathar, protests the suggestion anyone was hunted to the death, much as Snopes helpfully did with regard to similar activities on royal estates in Holland and Belgium (“Good God, no. I’m not a barbarian. No! There were a few bumps and bruises, but they were well paid for it”). And the secret meetings are simply about making money. How they “keep control”, admittedly, but still making money. So yes, The Hour of the Pig could be argued as anti-conspiracy, letting the Seigneur off the hook for depraved motives and behaviour, much as it lets off anyone bar Jeannine – who offers a genuine “blessing” of vision – of entreating with supernatural forces. But beneath this enlightened tolerance of feeble-minded yokels, there’s a pervading air of darkness that only seems to get explained away through similar processes.
And what of the disease itself? At one point, the priest wryly observes that the local waters would be much purer if the kids didn’t keep pissing in the spring. The Black Death represents the small pox of the medieval period, an account of the horrors of Pasteurian disease theory that keeps us all secure in the knowledge of a natural world that could strike out at us at any moment, indiscriminately (barring the odd curse/blessing). Really, though, taking note of how clean that water is makes for a much more coherent bet.
Megahey’s film many not be the most visually rich or stylish, but he throws in numerous incidental pleasures and colourful exchanges throughout, from a smiling dog to Chaucerian stage ribaldry, to frequent references to “tits like a milk cow’s”, to the flirtatious exchange between Firth and Anthony, both awkward and hilarious, to the Seigneur trying to sell his daughter’s wares and her flagranté reveal to Firth, honking like a “she-ass”, to Firth calling for rats to testify (with notices “fixed to barn doors and to every tree, everywhere the rats are known to congregate, summoning them to appear in court”) to Firth, attempting to eavesdrop on the brotherhood, sitting down on some actual bagpipes.
Albertius: All I’m saying is that in a world where nothing is reasonable, in the end, nothing can be truly mad.
The Hour of the Pig sports its veneer of mild incredulity with aplomb, so much so that one is tempted to suggest, should one be inclined to believe animals actually were once tried for crimes as documented, you’ll likely also be inclined to credit that pigs might fly.