There’s something about the painstaking time and effort required of stop motion animation that ensures a level of quality; the utter adorability of puppets an added perk for those that seek a childlike feeling when going to the cinema; and for a generation raised on The Nightmare Before Christmas, stop motion provides a safe, predictable dreamland for most American movie goers. How special, then, when you can be lured in by that aesthetic to something totally unexpected and equally unsafe.
Marc James Roels’ and Emma de Swaef’s This Magnificent Cake! (Ce Magnifique Gâteau!) exceeds all expectations in quality and craft, but is more fever-dream than day-dream; more Lynchian than Burton-esque; and certainly not safe. Five narrative shorts intertwine in this 19th century period piece, crafted in a strange but perfect medium for its meditations on white privilege, the other, and entitlement. What more disturbing way to capture the quiet horrors of colonial Africa than through the uncanny faces of wool-felted dolls?
Swaef, artist and co-director/writer/editor, renders the film’s characters in felt and other multi-textured fabrics. The accompanying effects created in swaths of wool and textiles (a rush of soft water, a pool of fuzzy vomit), cement the world in a particularly nightmarish frame of mind; one that is overwhelmingly childlike and plush, but simultaneously vacant and bleary. Each doll as distant and dead-behind-the-eyes as it appears touchable and precious. The work, on its artistic merits alone, is astounding.
Then, there’s the content.
Slavery, racism, and shame play alongside accidents traditional animation would play for fun. A falling piano, a dog thrown from a window, a quick fall from a cliff; here, the Looney-Tunes antics aren’t uproariously funny, but terrifying, echoless events that end as soon as they begin. There is no fanfare and no recourse, with long pauses between actions, characters that suffer no consequences, and others that seem to suffer all of them at once.
To render this history — of white supremacy, violence, and the decimation and appropriation of another culture — in a medium more accustomed to films for children is a strong, political choice. Inviting looks give way to horrific transformations and violent deaths. A predilection with uncanniness — a snail that takes on the looks (from eyes to toupee) of its human companion, rock mounds that look like people (but also the wool they are actually made of) — creates an air of discomfort that only further speaks to that history and the complicated and charged impression it has left on the present day.
It may seem a wicked trick to equate the plush with such a harsh and sharp reality. Yet, consider what goes into the traditional needle felting that Swaef’s dolls embody: puffs of wool are punched into a foam base using a sharp needle (sharp enough that this writer has herself bled attempting it), methodically pushing the material into each other until it takes on the intended shape.
The result is not only a film that is deeply contemplative of the ramifications of colonization, but whose own materials physically reflect that experience: people made of remnants, soft and unthreatening in appearance, but constructed by way of stabbing needles and from the hair of another living being.
There’s a moment where a musician, cast off early on by a very petty king, finds himself lured into the jungle, searching for a sound that echoed his own clarinet. Without any doubt that the sound is calling to him, he follows that sound.
His story eventually encounters another; an enslaved African man, standing on the edge of the water, mourning the loss of a friend. The clarinetist can’t help but play a note when he encounters this other, out of his own excitement and glee. But the shock sends the African man over the edge, killing him, we suppose. We suppose because the clarinetist doesn’t extend a hand, scream in fright, or call for help. He merely stalls for a moment, like many characters in this film do, then runs quickly back into the brush.
It’s a near perfect metaphor for the influence of benign white people on a culture not their own. No harm may be meant, but it is most certainly caused. Like any good period piece, the underlying question should always be, why this film now? This Magnificent Cake! answers the question boldly, requiring the viewer to look long and hard, not just at our history of violence, but at its structure and the strings that still remain.
by Alex Landers
Alex is a child of the late eighties, a horror fan, and an unapologetic feminist. Playwright and visual artist, too. She writes film criticism at .