In the late 19th century, King Leopold II of Belgium encapsulated his nation’s colonial ambitions, and more generally the European colonialist attitude toward much of the non-European world, with the phrase “I do not want to miss a good chance of getting us a slice of this magnificent African cake.” I don’t know if the king’s apt turn of phrase inspired the Cuba birthday cake in The Godfather Part II, which the criminal bosses carved up and shared among themselves as surely as they planned to do with Cuba itself, but it does provide a fitting title to one of the more unusual films I’ve seen in recent years.
This Magnificent Cake! is a 46-minute animated anthology film written and directed by Marc James Roels and Emma de Swaef that tells five stories relating to Belgium and its largest and best-known colony, known first as the Congo Free State and then as the Belgian Congo. It has been known under several names since becoming independent, and is officially known today as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or more informally as Congo-Kinshasa, after its capital and largest city. It’s a futile game to try to determine which colonial empire was the most brutal, but the Belgians are certainly in the running based on their behavior in this single possession alone. Congo Free State was originally ruled personally by Leopold II, who astonished even the other colonial powers with his ruthlessness in extracting the country’s wealth and abusing the “native” population; public outcry forced some reforms after 1908, but the territory remained a possession of Belgium, and a source of wealth for that country, until it gained its independence in 1960.
Knowing the backstory is important to make sense of the stories in This Magnificent Cake!, which uses satire bordering on absurdity to refer to a horror that, if it were expressed directly, few could bear to watch. The stories focus on unexpected interactions among a relatively small cast of characters, including an aging king, a pygmy servant, a musician, and an ill-fated colonial, and are set primarily in and around a luxury hotel in the midst of the jungle. Unlikely as it may sound, it all works, a fact reflected in the many industry and festival awards for which this film was nominated. Some of its most impressive wins include Best French Film at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in 2018, Best International Short Film at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018, and the Grand Prix at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in 2019.
This Magnificent Cake! is constructed entirely from stop-motion animation, which incorporates highly distinctive character and set designs (cinematography is credited to Roels, set decoration to De Swaef, and a whole team of animators led by Iris Alexandre helped bring the stories to life) to create an alternative world that is both recognizable and unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Nearly everything on screen seems to have been made from felts and fabrics, even the rocks and waterfalls of the landscape and the many bottles of beer consumed by the characters, lending a tactile dimension to the viewing experience. The character designs recall children’s dolls, which sets up an interesting contrast with the very adult name of the stories told in this film. | Sarah Boslaugh
This Magnificent Cake! is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include two short films, Oh Willy… (17 min.), directed by De Swaef and Roels, and The Burden (15 min.), directed by Niki Lindroth von Bahr, an interview with Roels (9 min.), a production gallery, and two trailers.