“Belgium. Is it a proper country or just some geo-political compromise?”
So asks the journalist-cum-documentarian Duncan Lloyd (Pieter van der Houwen) in Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth’s gently funny mockumentary King of the Belgians. Emphasis on gently. This is a light, somewhat diverting romp through the Balkan states, as experienced by a group of bumbling-if-ultimately-kind-hearted Belgians on the loose.
Lloyd has been engaged by Belgium’s Queen to shoot a film following her husband – King Nicolas III (Peter Van den Begin). Lloyd accompanies the king and his three-person entourage to Istanbul, where the party is stranded after a “cosmic disturbance” grounds all flights in Europe, a la 2010’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption. When word leaks out that French speaking Wallonia has declared its independence from Belgium, the king decides to return home immediately by land. Hijinks through Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro ensue.
King of the Belgians mines plenty of comedy out of the entourage’s interactions, both with themselves and the locals they meet on the road. At the film’s outset the king seems to exist solely as an exhausted prop, prone to the whims of his uptight band of advisors, deftly portrayed in semi-improvisational mode by Bruno Georis, Lucie Debay and Titus de Voogdt. As they fuss over him and argue among themselves, the king recites lines from his speeches in monotone, and nods off in between engagements.
But as the film progresses he gains some agency, and ends up vaguely holding his group of advisors together. They are guided by no great love of the monarchy (“Do you believe in monarchy,” the king asks one. “I believe in you,” comes the reply). At one point he argues forcefully for the right to drive the rickety ambulance ferrying the group through Bulgaria, overriding his advisors’ protestations. At last, the film seems to suggest, Nicolas has been granted a meaningful outlet to channel his royal purpose, even if that outlet is nothing more than a group of four people lost in the Balkans. The somewhat low level of these stakes ends up lending the film a lingering endearment.
Brosens and Woodworth employ handheld filmmaking in keeping with their mock-doc conceit, capturing some lovely images of Balkan landscapes in the process. It’s a perspective that they extend to the locals. Early sequences—a Bulgarian women’s choir and a subsequent yoghurt tasting competition—fleetingly nudge the film away from its comedic conceit and into the realm of a more straight-forward observational documentary. Notably, several distinctive Bulgarian Kukeri pop up, instantly recognisable to anybody who saw Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann.
The humour is of a gently absurd variety. It’s not just confined to the Belgian protagonists—a funny scene at the Serbian border includes a young man incongruously playing naff tunes on a ukulele. We’re told that “the government wants foreigners to have a positive image of Serbia.”
Unfortunately, the film’s weakest point is also its central figure. Much of the film is seen through the lens of Duncan Loyd, a character who oscillates between needlessly narrating what is happening and being perpetually bemused by the events he is capturing. It’s a patronising conceit for a film to employ: the audience doesn’t need to be told that it’s watching absurd or bemusing behaviour.
Worse still, he’s fairly mysoginistic towards the women in the film, whether it’s a Serbian border crossing guard (who he recognises as Miss Serbia 2006) or the king’s chief of protocol (“so who’s the lucky guy,” he rather creepily intones upon noticing her wedding ring). In short: he’s a bit of a dick, which would be fine if the film possessed any critical distance towards the character, but as King of the Belgians mostly indulges his bemused attitude towards the motley crew of Belgians, it doesn’t appear to. Lloyd doesn’t quite have the ultimately loveable interior that the other characters do.
Despite this major problem, King of the Belgians retains a charming sensibility. Its humour doesn’t always succeed, but its gently optimistic portrait of Belgians and Balkans interacting is a welcome rejoinder to the Brexit-infused cloud of negativity hovering over Europe.