Focus on King of the Belgians

King of the Belgians

Jessica Woodworth and Peter Brosens presented their fourth feature film, King of the Belgians, in the Orizzonti section of the 73th Venice Film Festival. Woodworth and Brosens both have backgrounds in documentary film, and are more widely known for the three feature films they have written, directed and co-produced together: Khadak (winner of the Lion of the Future at Venice in 2006), Altiplano (which was shown in Critics’ Week at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009), and The Fifth Season (part of the Official Competition line-up at Venice in 2012).

King of the Belgians follows Nicolas III (Peter Van Den Begin), the fanciful and lonely King of the Belgians. During a State visit to Istanbul, he learns that Wallonia has declared independence. Accompanied by his Chief of Protocol (Ludovic Moreau), his press officer (Lucie Debay), his loyal (Carlos de Vos), and British director Duncan Lloyd (Peter van der Houwen), who the Royal Palace has asked to make a documentary to liven up the somewhat lacklustre image of the monarchy, he tries to return to Belgium. What he doesn’t count on is a solar storm that suddenly strikes the Earth, closing the airways and paralysing all lines of communication. As for the Turkish secret service, they coldly reject the king’s suggestion of returning home by car. Lloyd, smelling that he has a hit on his hands, devises a questionable evacuation plan involving dressing up and Bulgarian singers. And so begins the secret odyssey of the King and his motley Areopagus across the Balkans.

Pretty much the first shot sets the mood of the film: borrowing from the codes of mockumentary film, the first scene of King of the Belgians portrays a bandy-legged king (the frame is slightly misaligned), the puppet of a court led by its authoritarian queen of a wife, who’s overly concerned with upholding etiquette and, above all, projecting a completely bland image of the monarchy. She adjusts his microphone, and fixes his hair and riding crop, feeding him recommendations non-stop. The king seems to have no independence, physically or intellectually. Up until then only half-heartedly concerned with his dusty and cumbersome monarchic legacy, Nicolas III is overcome by the urge to embark on a mission that is no more divine, but is intensely patriotic: to steer his country and his subjects towards resolving a conflict that may well be the last.

King of the Belgians is a farce as spirited as the polyphonic Bulgarian singing that makes this great escape possible, and as melancholic as this lanky king (played with conviction by Van Den Begin), who has been trussed up to fill a position that is bigger than him despite his albatross-esque stature, giving the impression of a clumsy and awkward king. The directors (deliberately) brush over potentially more novelistic lines of narrative (the blossoming of a potential romance, the mad high-speed chase and the taking of hostages), merely hinting at or side-stepping the action to focus on the story of a king fallen before his time on one final mission, the best one of all. We’re left not really knowing whether we’re in the past or the future, the fact remains that such historic freedom allows directors to talk about Europe today with levity as well as a certain sourness, whether they’re talking about Belgium, Turkey, or the Balkans.

King of the Belgians is produced by Bo Films, a director-led company, in co-production with Entre Chien et Loup, Topkapi Films and Art Fest, with the support of the VAF, the CCA, Screen Flanders and the Netherlands Film Fund.