I recently saw an adaptation of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” set in the modern day. It’s a French-language film, a black comedy/satire known as Quasimodo d’El Paris. It’s set in 1999 or thereabouts in an unnamed place, in a city called El Paris.
It is strange and over-the-top, but funny and charming. It reminds me of what “Clueless” did with “Emma” and, even more so, what “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” did with Cervantes’ most famous story. “The Man” has a story about illegal Muslim immigrants in modern-day Spain, standing in for 16th-century Moors, just as “Quasimodo d’El Paris” has Cubans standing in for 15th-century Gypsies.
But this movie is more of a comedy than “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”, and it really is over-the-top. Frollo is a straight-up psychopath, but not in the Disney version’s sense of genocide-as-insanity. Here he’s a serial killer who manages somehow to be funny. Oh, and he’s built a chamber in the bowels of his cathedral containing machines that somehow turn human beings instantly into gargoyle statues. Because this is all firmly in fantasy, Frollo can be a comedic villain with a deadpan delivery, and a knowing wink hiding under it all.
The most serious turn in the film is not the kidnappings or DIY-gargoyle sequences. It’s in the middle of the movie when Frollo begins showering affection on Quasimodo and a sequence follows that implies a pedophile priest and his victim, complete with long rides in a convertible and a trip to the beach. The winks, humor and good cheer are maintained but the subtext is impossible to miss, or not to mourn.
In this version, Esmeralda grows up as “Agnes” in a wealthy family, and she’s actually engaged to Phoebus. When she learns of her true identity, she goes to live with the Cubans for a while. Phoebus is a relentless dimwit here, so he doesn’t recognize his fiancée, because she’s now wearing her hair down and dressing a little differently. Agnes/Esmeralda strings Phoebus along in his ignorance, during the stabbing scene, confronting him for betraying “Agnes”. I thought that was a clever callback to the novel, though it’s a little confusing the first time you see it.
This version is more Disney than Disney in that Quasimodo and Esmeralda actually become lovebirds at the end.
But before that happens, Quasimodo practically commits suicide alongside Esmeralda by plunging after her into a vat of menacing-looking stuff that supposedly kills them; they end up merely encrusted in mud. After Quasimodo disappears in the mystery-stuff, Frollo puts his hands into it and attempts to pull Quasimodo back up, but retrieves only dust – a nice callback to the ending of the novel.
Despite a technically high body count, there is no gore in this movie and no attempted rape scene. Frollo’s inner torment, which is what makes the story dark in the first place, is largely replaced here by a villain who’s having fun and who in the end goes voluntarily to his death, still cracking deadpan jokes. Which all makes it the lightest Hunchback adaption I’ve seen. It’s not the funniest movie you’ll ever see but it is by far the funniest Hunchback movie possible.
Next post, the Disney animated version from 1996.