While the macabre stop-motion animation of this animated anthology is sweet, its approach to colonialism leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
The Belgian King Leopold declared “I do not want to miss a good chance of getting us a slice of this magnificent African cake,” and in 1885, he colonized the Congo Free State, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The 2018 short film This Magnificent Cake! (Ce Magnifique Gâteau) directed by Marc James Roels and Emma de Swae examines the stories of the king, European settlers and African natives in five separate (though connected) stories. Filmed using stop-motion animation, and using felt instead of clay, the film is beautiful, but ultimately unsettling in its story.
The film opens with King Leopold’s dream of owning a piece of Africa, then moves to the tale of a Congo native, Ota, who works as an ashtray for the guests at the King’s lavish hotel that serves as a gateway for many of the colonizers. The last three stories are connected by a Belgian baker who absconds with his family’s fortune to live the high life in Africa. The third story introduces us to the baker, Von Molle, and his lonely life in his African mansion, and his ill-fated friendship with a snail. The fourth is the shortest of the five
The first chapter, King Leopold’s story, is called “The King’s Dream,” and it’s the logic of dreams that pervades the entire movie. There are numerous dream sequences, and fantastical elements to each story, and it’s hard to tell what, if anything, is happening in real life rather than a dream. This adds to the mythicization of Africa, the idea of a dark continent that represents the colonial fantasy of Europeans rather than the actual place. It also gives the film a childlike element that is mirrored in the Europeans. The white characters all have a child like quality to them, specifically a spoiled child. The King is portrayed as a toddler tyrant, who wets himself and calls for his servant when he has a nightmare. The antagonist of the second story is a literal toddler who throws his dog out a window and causes Ota’s death due to accidentally pushing a piano over a ledge.
The characterization of the colonizers as children is the most frustrating aspect of the film’s examination of colonialism. The African characters show much greater range of depth and emotion, and greater empathy to other characters. The Europeans on the other hand take what they want with little to no regard for the other’s, and seem unaware of the hurt they cause.
The characterization of the colonizers as children is the most frustrating aspect of the film’s examination of colonialism.
This, however, downplays the true evil of colonialism, and the racist ideology it requires. Children don’t know any better when they are selfish, but the people who invaded Africa and enslaved its inhabitants chose to ignore the humanity of those they colonized. In the one scene where a character acknowledges he’s hurt others, it’s when Von Molle cries over the pain he caused his family, not over the lives of the Africans who died carrying his belongings through the jungle. One can look at the tension the film creates between the audience understanding the damage they cause and the lack of understanding on the character’s part, but it’s still an unsettling first take.
This Magnificent Cake! definitely takes the cake when it comes to visuals, with its gorgeously detailed stop-motion felt puppets. But ultimately its depictions of colonialism make it a bit tough to watch.