'The Barefoot Emperor': Film Review | TIFF 2019

The Barefoot Emperor - TIFF - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of TIFF
Barefoot in a chic sanatorium's park.

Belgium-based directorial duo Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth's latest is a sequel to their madcap mockumentary 'King of the Belgians.'

The erstwhile King of Belgium — erstwhile only because his country no longer exists — unexpectedly becomes the title character of the political dramedy The Barefoot Emperor. What's more, he is asked to rule over all of Europe, which has become a patchwork of nationalistic nation states. Why the states have decimated European Parliament only to then prop up a single leader and crown him Emperor, of all possible titles, is but one of the mysteries of this coolly elegant feature, which is a direct sequel to the mockumentary road trip and festival hit King of the Belgians.

Less unruly and hilariously funny than that film, but made with more of an eye for poetry and introspection, this peculiar hybrid continues Belgium-based directors Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth's exploration of politically edged comedy while returning to some of the formal rigor and beauty of their more art house-oriented earlier work, such as Khadak and Altiplano.

Somewhat oddly, King of the Belgians debuted in the Horizons section at the Venice International Film Festival in 2016 and didn’t go to the Toronto International Film Festival, but The Barefoot Emperor had its world premiere in Toronto while skipping Venice. That said, perhaps it is a kind of meta statement meant to underline that one can be enjoyed without having seen the other, which is certainly true.

After a regrettable accident during the reenactment of the assassination that sparked World War I in Sarajevo, Belgian King Nicolas III (Flemish actor Peter Van den Begin, encoring like most others) is transferred to the Croatian island of Brijuni. The slightly creepy Dr. Kroll (Udo Kier at his Udo Kier-est) runs a sanatorium there in the former summer residence of Communist leader Josip Tito of Yugoslavia. Cut off from the outside world and things such as Wi-Fi and phones, Nicolas is kept in the dark there about the fact that his kingdom has not only imploded — following the declaration of independence of the French-speaking Wallonia region, as seen in part one — but that it has apparently had a domino effect on all of Europe, with the states getting rid of European Parliament (all this is briefly talked about but the cameras never leave the island). Indeed, this chaos seems a world away from the sunny and peaceful Croatian island that’s used for the king’s revalidation.

In a running gag that gets tired quite quickly, each guest at the sanatorium is treated anonymously and referred to as the famous previous guest whose room they are staying in. (The joke is that Tito, a dictator who ruled Yugoslavia for 36 years, received practically all the major world leaders and movie stars of his time regardless of his and their political affiliation.) This is why the members of the King’s entourage, still consisting of Palace Press Attaché Louise (Lucie Debay), Head of Protocol Ludovic (Bruno Georis) and Personal Valet Carlos (Titus de Voogdt), are often referred to as, respectively, Miss Ghandi, Mr. Castro and Mr. Arafat. The sovereign himself has become Mr. Brezhnev, a friend of Tito who, in a nice touch, we are told gifted him the sanatorium’s surveillance system. 

Other guests at the sanatorium include the mysterious Elizabeth Taylor (Geraldine Chaplin), who possibly has a twin, and the upright Mr. Richard Burton (Darko Stazi), who is worried things will get out of hand in one of the enclosures of Tito’s large zoo, which is also still standing. The drama is caused by a llama cria that has been adopted by a zebra family and might think it’s a zebra. This is another rather obvious metaphor that is, well, milked a little too much, though its punchline still gets a smile. 

Though there are no real belly laughs, there are chuckle-inducing moments sprinkled throughout the narrative. One comes early on, when the king is being revived from the dead, which is shown by simply having him march into an underground tomb and then have him turn around and walk back out when he wakes up. The famous classical music pieces used for humorous effect recall the expert use of them in King of the Belgians, as do a few other sight gags. Also worth a giggle is the explanation of how the accident at Sarajevo could occur, which hinges on the right understanding of the word “pistolet,” which means "handgun" in French but "bread roll" in Flanders and Brussels. However, the subtitles don’t even try to translate this joke, much like a later moment, when a toast by Dr. Kroll includes a fun pun that is just left untranslated. 

The screenplay, written by the directors, and the general tone here differs quite a lot from King of the Belgians, which was supposedly shot as an improvised documentary by British paparazzo-cum-cameraman Duncan Lloyd (Pieter van der Houwen) and which had a chaotic, anything-goes energy that made more room for improvisational humor. Lloyd also briefly appears here but he mostly feels like a leftover from a previous draft, while he also represents a missed opportunity to poke some fun at Brexit, one of Europe’s most topical and divisive issues.

As befits a high-end sanatorium, the atmosphere of The Barefoot Emperor is quieter and a little more contemplative, and this is reflected in Ton Peters’ statelier cinematography and the plush production design by Sabina Christova, both Belgians alumni. Woodworth and Brosens insert several shots that work as more poetic interludes, like when the guests suddenly start a graceful dance or are invited to use trampolines and the patients, all in white T-shirts and light-blue shorts, can be seen simultaneously bouncing upward toward the blue sky. Van den Begin gets just a little more breathing room to reflect on Nicolas’ role in his own life and that of the Belgians and Europeans, a move that recalls the more meditative vibe of the director’s first three features. 

Despite the slower pace, however, the political ruminations of the screenplay don’t go much deeper than in part one, which was also quite superficial. There is no satisfactory explanation for Europe’s need to crown an emperor when they want to abolish European Parliament. And the film’s central notion — namely that all European countries are now paradoxically united because they share very similar nationalistic and inward-looking policies — is certainly intriguing but not sufficiently developed to have any bite. 

There is, however, talk of a united new Europe of nationalists called Nova Europa that is sketched out in a somewhat hard-to-follow manner and that doesn’t really address the paradox it encapsulates or the precise role Nicolas would have to play as its figurehead. The directors do like to play around with historical names and places, but they only rarely add directly to an understanding of the characters or the film’s core themes. A reflection that equates migrants and garbage — “they used to be a problem until they became a business” — feels similarly undernourished, with the sentence coming off as opportunistic and crass when it could have been provocative or perhaps even smart with a little more work. 

At the end of the day, this Barefoot Emperor might get cold feet, though some fun can still be had on the way there. 

Production companies: Bo Films, Topkapi Films, Propeler Film, Wajnbrosse Productions, Art Fest
Cast: Peter Van den Begin, Lucie Debay, Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, Bruno Georis, Titus De Voogdt
Writer-directors: Jessica Woodworth, Peter Brosens
Producers: Jessica Woodworth, Peter Brosens
Cinematography: Ton Peters
Production design: Sabina Christova
Costume design: Morana Starcevic
Editing: David Verdurme
Music: Alen Sinkauz, Nenad Sinkauz 
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)

Sales: Be for Films

In English, French, Dutch, German
99 minutes