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The Barefoot Emperor | 2019 Toronto Intl. Film Festival Review

The Barefoot Emperor | 2019 Toronto Intl. Film Festival Review

Barefoot and Stagnant: Woodworth & Brosens Continue Their Belgian Political Satire

Peter Brosens Jessica Woodworth The Barefoot Emperor ReviewWhile one doesn’t necessarily have to be readily familiar with the 2016 film King of the Belgians from directing duo Jessica Woodworth and Peter Brosens, a recent viewing might assist with enjoying the flavor, intention and orientation of their fifth feature, The Barefoot Emperor, which is for all intents and purposes, a sequel (or perhaps continuation is a better word). The former film featured the fictional king of Belgium, Nicholas III, or rather disparagingly referred to as “Nicholas the Silent,” a somewhat estranged and ineffectual ruler who gets stuck leaving Istanbul during a detrimental passage back home to address the rebellion of the Wallonia faction in his empire—instead he’s grounded by a cosmic storm and forced to endure a comical road trip through the Balkans. This second chapter is a bit more pointed in its political satire as it imagines the dissolution of the fictional European Union and the ascension of the new Nova Europa with Belgium as the central key figure in the somewhat vague dawn of a new nationalist-driven empire.

Still on his way home to Belgium, where his kingdom has irreparably collapsed, King Nicholas III (Peter Van den Begin) is shot in Sarajevo during a theatrical reenactment of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s 1914 assassination by a Bosnian actor playing Gavrilo Princip. Waking three days later in a sanatorium on an isolated Croatian island designed to house political figures and celebrities seeking anonymity, and run by the sinister Dr. Otto Kroll (Udo Kier), Nicholas is befuddled and bewildered, cut off from contact with the outside world. He learns his shooting sparked the dissolution of the European Union and a nationalist movement will result in the naming of a new European emperor, the announcement of which is scheduled to take place at the sanatorium. As Dr. Kroll orchestrates the impending world event, Nicholas and his crew attempt to escape from the island.

Fans of Woodworth and Brosens, who prior to these two political satires directed a trio of lyrical art-house dramas, included their eerie and underrated third film The Fifth Season (review), continue to branch off in more humorous directions in The Barefoot Emperor, recruiting the likes of Geraldine Chaplin (playing twins, no less) and Kier to join a quartet of returning cast members. While Nathalie Laroche’s rigid Queen from King of the Belgians is absent from the proceedings, Peter Van den Begin (who recently appeared in Fabrice Du Welz’s Adoration) is front and center as the meek and mild Nicholas, whose personality doesn’t seem to have benefited at all from the adventures across the Balkans nor his near death experience in Sarajevo.

Of course, The Barefoot Emperor feels timelier than ever with Brexit looming in Britain and the chaotic regressions taking place in the current US presidential administration, but its most subversive highlight is showcasing how history is doomed to repeat itself, with a new Euro empire born, inextricably, through a reenactment of the ‘spark’ which instigated what became WWI. Likewise, Nicholas’ internment on a Croatian island (which was the actual former summer home of Josep Broz Tito) finds its denizens assuming the identities of their rooms, named for former infamous world leaders and celebrities. While Nicholas becomes Leonid Brezhnev, Chaplin is Liz Taylor, for instance. Kier, as campy and menacing here as he is in Kleber Mendonca Filho & Juliano Dornelles Bacurau, is the head of this ‘kurort,’ and the driving force behind the whispered plotting of the dissolution abroad in Europe, a ripple effect which reached its zenith during the accidental shooting of Nicholas during the theatrical reenactment.

Nicholas’ trio of employees have less memorable moments this time around, with Titus De Voogdt and Bruno Georis fading into the background. Lucie Debay, as the press secretary, is courted for assistance by Kier, with the media described as a tool leaders can use as “a great keyboard.” But most of the novel moments in Emperor arrive courtesy of the magnetism of Kier and a kookier than ever Chaplin, who explains most of the rules of the island where “we don’t experience time like others do” and as a place where humanity is experienced “in small doses.” Like the narration included in the mockumentary style of King, some peripheral devices are also used here for laughs, such as an intermittent loudspeaker announcing spa appointments for Che Guevara or “social media detoxification.”

The idea of Nova Europa seems a timely and troubling allegory for the collusion of dysfunctional world powers, and Nicholas the III of Belgium is anointed Nicholas the I of Europe, a puppet whose newly discovered flair for weirdness by the film’s closing moments provides a window into a future chapter of where Woodworth and Brosens might be headed in continuing portraits of a Belgian-led Europe.

Reviewed on September 5th at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival – Contemporary World Cinema Program. 99 Mins.

★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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