At one stage in Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels’ stop-motion animation short This Magnificent Cake!, a child is rattling the lid of a grand piano, which causes the instrument to shake, tumble out of its castor-holders, and roll down a marble floor, whereupon it falls down on one level, on top of a poor unfortunate standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Mere minutes later, in this film whose every shot exhales a delicate inner life, a large man crossing a rope bridge over a vast precipice while eating a banana tosses the peel over his shoulder. It lands on the bridge, where he is being followed by five other people, a groanworthy cartoon cliché just begging to be subverted. But as with the grand piano landing on someone’s head, the banana peel serves here to puncture our expectations and feed into a quietly bristling politics, since these dark jokes fall on both occasions at the expense of people of colour, who suffer from the unthinkingness of white people. The child prodding the grand piano is a white, rich boy in a luxury grand-hotel in Africa, and the man it lands on is a put-upon Pygmy working there as, literally, a human ashtray, with a vessel strapped to the top of his hat. On the rope bridge, the adventurer is Van Molle, a colonialist leading slaves across the rope bridge, and his banana skin causes five of them, roped together as they carry his belongings, to fall off the bridge into churning waters below - rendered, in this bewitchingly inventive film, by lengths of twine tumbling over themselves, set to a great hum of crashing water.
The joke, then - if indeed there is one here - is that the joke isn’t funny; or the joke might be on us, the viewer, expecting a sick joke, and being met only with two flatly played scenes whose bathos is matched by something quietly, dispiritingly gruesome without hitting any sort of comical beat. The filmmakers show their tartness in the way they play on these obvious animation tropes - but also display the lambent gentleness of their tone, which accompanies a rich and sophisticated stance on the evils of colonialism. At every turn, the hand-made craft of the characters flitting from chapter to chapter of this weird, quite entrancing film, seem to enact a sort of dislocation. The film is notable for the way its people do not connect; there is touching between them, on occasion, but more often than not the characters - these beautiful hand-sewn figures with blotchy complexions, closely set eyes and thin, regretful mouths, whose heads are a frazzle of thin fur - appear to be at a remove from one another.
In this aspect of the film, which relies on finding quite miraculous perspective and giving scenes a depth of field that hardly seems possible, the filmmakers perform their greatest feats of storytelling. Take Van Molle, a failed businessman seeking his luck on the new continent, who appears as one of many grotesques. The filmmakers turn the nature of their animation to their immense advantage, by alternating hypnotic close-ups, which dwell on the texture of felt and fur, with surprising vistas of countryside, depicted in lush shadows, and interesting middle-distance scenes with great depth of focus. In one of these, Van Molle follows a snail - just go with it - down a passageway, into a cave whose stalactites and stalagmites balloon around him like Freudian nightmares, which have the appearance, too, of sarcophagi. Van Molle cuts almost a comical figure, bumbling forward with his distended belly and shouting after his snail friend in his high-pitched Steve Carell voice: this creates a disconnect, too, with the odd, oneiric scenario. Van Molle becomes lost, and, finding the snail again, puts a wig on the snail’s head and feeds it beer - before causing it to die by, again, his grotesque clumsiness. This narrative - the film is a sort of compendium of interconnected stories - is perhaps where This Magnificent Cake! realises its most potent cinematic potential.There is a metaphysical quality at play here that never feels overburdened, and the work on character that realistically should not have this much force is pitched perfectly.
In the process, the film begins to feel Conradian for the way it uses ideas of empire, wildness, opportunity, identity and otherness, to talk about the human soul. De Swaef and Roels are clear, however - where Conrad, in Heart of Darkness, was perhaps deliberately ambiguous and certainly racially ropey - that the brunt of this questing, will always be born by black people, and the price to pay is violence and death. That’s where the film’s ostensible mildness - born completely from its stylings and rhythm, as well as its sound mix - becomes interesting, since it clashes with the desperation that it hints at. The final and most extended sequence, which sees Louis, a deserter, revisiting Van Molle territory, returns him to the vast and deserted building where Van Molle’s adventure was set, where - and the film doesn’t dwell too much on this aspect - the place is lined all around the grounds with human skulls. Even in dwelling on Louis, in a bold dreamlike sequence where he is able to cross the sea on foot to make his way home, the film makes clear the human price of our soul-searching - or perhaps, safer to say, our moral footprint.
If Louis’s adventure finally brings him back to dreaming of being recognised by the King - whom we see in a deft opening sequence, and who is probably a stand-in for Leopold II of Belgium, the notoriously cruel and barbaric ruler of the Congo, this is just one more of the This Magnificent Cake!’s many consummate ironies. Named for Leopold II’s statement about Africa - a magnificent cake, in his view, that he needed to possess, divvy up, and, I suppose, eat - the film shows enormous delicacy in the end, in the diverse ways it finds - through its intelligent structure, its craft and optics, its storytelling - to engage with the soul of man, while recognising that we have our feet on the ground.
This Magnificent Cake! is showing at the LSFF on Sunday 13th January: https://shortfilms.org.uk/
lsff2019/events/2019-01-13- competition-international-out- of-history