Following on from the popularity of their previous short film, Oh Willy…, Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels return to the Manchester Animation Festival. This time with the similarly bizarre but thoroughly enjoyable Ce Magnifique Gâteau! (This Magnificent Cake!).
Comprised of five slightly interconnected stories, the film explores the European colonisation of Africa in the late 19th century. It is shown through the eyes of a variety of misfortune-laden characters, including a troubled king, an indigenous pygmy working in a luxury hotel, a failed businessman, a lost porter and an army deserter. Of course with this subject matter comes scenes which force reflection on what is a shameful part of European history. In particular one scene stands out as a shocking demonstration of ignorance behaviour by the colonisers towards the indigenous people.
However, peppered throughout the often fairly bleak film, there are a surprising number of humorous moments. They range from the truly childish to the so-shocking-you-have-to-laugh which helps to lighten the film.
One of the film’s most stand-out aspects is its animation style which, similarly to Oh Willy…, is stop-motion featuring handmade needle-felt puppets as the characters. The puppets themselves are incredibly detailed and bring with them an odd kind of inherent sympathy which, given some of their actions, creates an interesting juxtaposition between the innocent looking and the unimaginably cruel. In addition to the puppets, the sets are equally beautifully designed with co-director Marc James Roels confirming in a post-screening Q&A that no CGI was involved, making it clear how the film took over 6 years to make.
In terms of overall plot, despite the fact it’s been a few days since watching, it is still very difficult to make any kind of sense of the events that unfolded during the film’s frankly very modest 45-minute run time. Even the post-screening Q&A shed no further light on this aspect of the film, with Roels responding to a particularly facetious question about the film’s meaning by simply stating “it means whatever you want it to”. At first this answer may perhaps seem like a cop out. However, in a world of superhero films with the same exhausted narrative and middle-of-the-road comedies following a tired formula, it was wonderfully refreshing to be able to disengage and just focus on the sheer insanity a film and get totally lost inside De Swarf and Roel’s dream-like world.
In addition to the film’s peculiar visuals, the soundtrack, largely classical music, forms a crucial part of its appeal. It bridges the gap between the seemingly normal characters and their surreal surroundings.
Overall, Ce Magnifique Gâteau! was a true highlight of this year’s festival line-up. It’s certainly worth a watch for anyone looking for a truly unique piece of storytelling about a subject that’s an often forgotten part of European history.