The fourth film from Belgium-based directorial duo Jessica Woodworth and Peter Brosens, King of the Belgians is a royal road-trip movie in mockumentary form. This is an unexpected but very welcome change of pace for the filmmakers, whose previous fiction features — Khadak, Altiplano and The Fifth Season — were all lyrical but also rather serious and highbrow art house fare.
The premise is simple enough: During a Belgian king’s state visit to Istanbul, the French-speaking part of Belgium, Wallonia, declares its independence and the country’s leader needs to get home — or to what’s left of it — but because of an electrical storm, the only possibility is to drive across the Balkans to Western Europe. A gonzo British filmmaker following the sovereign and his entourage captures everything on camera and has then edited the film and supplied it with a voiceover, which fills in the gaps and/or delivers acerbic commentary.
A king on the loose.
Though the film doesn’t dig all that deep politically, it features quite a few solid laughs and should do well when it’ll be released in the Low Countries this fall. After its Venice bow, this will likely turn up at other festivals looking for lighter fare and should also appeal to broadcasters.
What’s perhaps the most surprising thing about this King is that it is, for the most part, a polite movie about a rather polite-seeming monarch. The fictional Nicolas III (Peter Van den Begin) is a tall, somewhat stiff but quite malleable man in early middle age who needs to smile more according to his wife. Indeed, the equally stiff Queen (Nathalie Laroche) has taken the rather incredible — in the sense of hard to believe — step of commissioning a former war correspondent turned paparazzo from Britain, Duncan Lloyd (Pieter van der Houwen), to direct a one-man-crew documentary that should help make the monarch feel more accessible to the Belgians.
That this is a necessity becomes clear during the first state visit that Lloyd films, in Turkey, where the King is celebrating the host country’s (entirely fictional) admission into the European Union. When news of Wallonia’s secession reaches the head of state, his edgy Head of Protocol, Ludovic (Bruno Georis), makes it clear they need to return immediately. But with a cosmic storm making flights and telecommunications impossible, the King, Ludovic and the monarch’s press attaché (Lucie Debay) and personal valet (Titus de Voogdt) have to rely on the craftiness of Lloyd to get them out of Istanbul.
They escape on a bus with a group of female folk singers from Bulgaria, and it’s here that the film’s silly sense of humor really comes into view, as the entire Belgian delegation has to pass the border incognito so they’re all dressed in traditional Bulgarian garb — for women. (As in many traditional screen comedies, a lot of the humor is generated through simple “cut to:” moments in the editing.) The sovereign is, of course, the biggest fish out of the water in this scenario and his trying to understand how a clutch works on an ambulance, his desire to at least once eat a kebab or his impersonation of a Belgian TV host (another one of their covers) are of course all milked for easy laughs. Though probably not intentionally, the appearance of a small army of kukeri — the tall figures in black, furry getups, also seen in Cannes hit Toni Erdmann — will get a knowing guffaw from the art house-literate.
By the time this motley crew has to leave Serbia even though they lost their passports, they have various people on their tail. They include a Turkish security agent (Valentin Ganev) and a former Yugoslav Olympian (Goran Radakovic) who became a famous sniper during the Balkan Wars. These generic-feeling elements only provide narrative scaffolding that’s meant to, if not quite generate not tension, at least a sense of forward momentum.
There also are surprisingly few political jabs. There are some platitudes about Belgium being the buttons that keeps the European shirt together — Brussels is the European capital, after all — and Lloyd, early on, wonders in voiceover whether the nation is “a proper country or a geo-political compromise.” And there’s a moment in which a more politically engaged film can be glimpsed, when Lloyd, on a rickety boat on the Adriatic, bluntly asks the Palace employees about the positive and negative clichés that exist about the Flemish and the Walloons. But since the entire entourage is more or less trilingual, smoothly switching between French, Dutch and English, there’s no real exploration of the two politically opposed halves that make up the Kingdom and that are so frequently at odds with one another that a possible secession has indeed been floated as a possibility by some minority parties (in the film as in real life, the nation’s tiny German-speaking minority is essentially ignored).
The fact that the story is set abroad also doesn’t help in this regard, even though that, too, doesn’t generate much political debate. Turkey’s supposed entry into the EU is just a given while the fact that most of the Balkans have remained outside of the Union generates exactly one remark.
Flemish actor Van den Begin is an inspired choice to play Nicolas III, and his nebbish slowly warming up to more freedoms than he’s used to while simultaneously asserting more of his authority is a pleasingly multifaceted figure that he plays to perfection. The rest of the cast also is right at home in this story that was partially improvised and shot to look like a cheap, one-camera documentary. Lloyd’s rambling voiceover explanations and music choices, which are all classical pieces you’ve heard countless time before, further suggest the supposedly jerry-rigged nature of the film audiences are watching.
Production companies: Bo Films, Entre Chien et Loup, Topkapi Films, Art Fest
Cast: Peter Van den Begin, Bruno Georis, Lucie Debay, Titus De Voogdt, Pieter van der Houwen, Goran Radakovic, Nina Nikolina, Valentin Ganev, Nathalie Laroche
Writer-directors: Peter Brosens, Jessica Woodworth
Producers: Peter Brosens, Jessica Woodworth
Director of photography: Ton Peters
Production designer: Sabina Christova
Costume designers: Eka Bichinashvili, Claudine Tychon
Editor: David Verdurme
Sales: Be For Films
Not rated, 94 minutes