If you could choose to live under a European colonial power, it would have been the United Kingdom, hands down (a well-educated domestic civil service, public works programs, membership in the British Commonwealth, which even countries that were not British colonies want to join). Belgium was the polar opposite. King Leopold II was determined to have his “slice of this magnificent cake” and exploit the heck out of it too. 19th Century Belgian colonialism serves as the backdrop for Emma De Swaef & Marc James Roels’ weirdly surreal forty-four-minute stop-motion animated mini-feature, This Magnificent Cake, which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.
In its five loosely interconnected chapters, De Swaef and Roels follow five very different characters, whose fates are intertwined with the Belgian colonial experiment, starting with Leo 2, himself. The King is plagued by insomnia, even though his long cherished imperial ambitions are finally being realized. He is also quite the philistine, silencing a humiliated clarinet player during what was supposed to be his command duet with piano accompaniment. Poor, abused licorice stick.
The experience is enough to drive the poor musician out to the newly opened colony, but he still can’t find respect at the luxury hotel for boozy expats. The same is true for its first pygmy employee, who is forced to stand at attention for hours at a time, with an ashtray strapped to his head. Things fare badly for him, as they also do for the porters accompanying Van Molle, an embezzler who left his family patisserie high and dry. Of course, Van Molle is no worse for the wear, but he will have his own subsequent drunken misadventures. He really is a cad, which is why his deserter nephew intends to confront him, in hopes of restoring the family fortune, if not its honor.
Cake certainly has no love for Leopold II or colonialism in general, but the more strident critics might feel like the film’s surreal visuals and left field plot turns rather soften the blow. De Swaef and Roels unambiguously connect the colonists’ personal corruption and vice with the larger Imperial enterprise, but we also witness as Van Molle befriends a large, trippy snail.
On the other hand, it all makes Cake quite distinctive, in all its felt and fibers. Think of it as a darker version of Adam Elliot or a fuzzier version of Jan Svankmajer. There is also a smidge of Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s scatological impulses, especially in De Swaef & Roels’ Oh Willy…, their 17-minute wordless short from 2012, which screens with Cake during its LA run (along with Niki Lindroth von Bahr’s The Burden, which screened as part of the 2017 Animation Show of Shows). Initially, it take time to warm to this sometime cruel tale of a schlubby everyman who visits his dying mother at her nudist colony (a different kind of colony living), just in the nick of time. However, the weird third act will redeem its mean-spiritedness for most cult cinema fans.