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TORONTO 2019 Contemporary World Cinema

Review: The Barefoot Emperor

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- The sequel to King of the Belgians is a broad, surrealistic political satire on the current state of Europe, loaded with historical references

Review: The Barefoot Emperor
Peter van den Begin in The Barefoot Emperor

Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth follow up on the mockumentary King of the Belgians [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Jessica Woodworth, Peter Br…
film profile
]
with a fiction sequel, The Barefoot Emperor [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, which has world-premiered in Toronto's Contemporary World Cinema section. This surrealistic political satire comments on the current state of Europe with a copious helping of historical references that are sometimes too broad to really be effective.

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For those who have not seen King of the Belgians, the filmmakers open this picture with a brief recap outlining the path of King of Belgium Nicolas the Third (Peter van den Begin, reprising his role), who, on his way back from Istanbul, where he learned that Wallonia had seceded and Belgium no longer existed, ends up in Sarajevo on 28 June. This is the anniversary of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, and the king, with his entourage from the first film – which includes press attaché Louise (Louise Vancraeyenes), chief of protocol Ludovic (Bruno Georis) and valet Carlos (Titus de Voogt) – finds himself in the middle of a reenactment of the historical incident and gets shot in the ear.

A couple of days later, the king wakes up in a sanatorium on the Croatian island of Brijuni, run by Dr Kroll (Udo Kier). This casting choice eliminates any need for his character's exposition, and he tells the king that the dissolution of Belgium has led to the shutdown of the European Parliament, and that a “Nova Europa”, where national identity takes precedence over everything else, is being set up, with a new emperor in line to rule it. The emperor will be revealed on this very island, which used to be Tito's summer residence, where he hosted world leaders and important figures. Each patient in the sanatorium is named after the room in which these people resided: the king is now called Brezhnev, Louise is Indira Gandhi, Ludovic is Castro, Carlos is Arafat, and there is also an Elizabeth Taylor, played by Geraldine Chaplin.

With the farcical approach that the directors take, it is hardly a spoiler to say that the former King of the Belgians will be the Emperor of Nova Europa. The setting points to the oft-mentioned parallel between the EU and Yugoslavia, but the satire is too broad to always be effective – the film alludes to Hitler, Goebbels, Mussolini, Che Guevara, Ceausescu and Srebrenica, and the architect of Nova Europa is called Dr Ilse von Stroheim. And when we encounter Indian "climate refugees" in a submarine who "saved Parmesan cheese" but had to leave Italy because of their lack of legal papers – well, then almost anything goes.

The Barefoot Emperor works well as a commentary on current topics, but often feels disjointed and superficial on the narrative and character levels. Stylistically, Brosens and Woodworth go for a clear detachment from reality with the limited location and global subject matter, and with the flat, often symmetrical cinematography and deadpan editing decisions intended to heighten the surreal vibe. The same goes for the soundtrack, always employed ironically, consisting of the most famous classical pieces (Carmen, Bolero and The Blue Danube Waltz), sometimes backing a couple of choreographic set pieces that might have a symbolic meaning – but if there is one, it is as wide as the general array of topics that the film tries to address.

The Barefoot Emperor is a co-production by Belgium's Bo Films and Wajnbrosse Productions, the Netherlands' Topkapi Films, Croatia's Propeler Film and Bulgaria's Art Fest. Brussels-based Be for Films has the international rights.

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