A classic mockumentary blending gently satirical humor with deeper underpinnings, “King of the Belgians” is a delightful, surprisingly respectful ribbing of the incongruity of monarchy, Belgium, and the Balkans. Director-scripters Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth deliver a much more lighthearted divertissement than “The Fifth Season,” imagining a British documentarian filming a staid Belgian king’s state visit to Turkey just when Wallonia declares independence. Since a cosmic storm has cut off phone lines and air travel, the monarch and his entourage must drive through the Balkans as the only means of high-tailing it back home. “King” will be especially appreciated in the home countries, with likely modest success in other Euro locales.
It’s not just royalty that’s considered anomalous in this day and age: Belgium itself, uneasily composed of French and Flemish halves, holds a slightly jokey position in the European consciousness, home to the EU yet lacking (this is perception) a recognizable identity. The same can be said for King Nicolas III (Peter Van den Begin), the tall, dignified, seemingly blank monarch whose controlling wife Queen Ursula (Nathalie Laroche) hires Duncan Lloyd (Pieter van der Houwen) to make a documentary that will show the royal family in a flattering light.
Ensuring that the right message comes across are rigid Ludovic Moreau (Bruno Georis), chief of protocol, and uptight Louise Vancraeyenest (Lucie Debay), recently put in charge of press relations. The first official engagement to be filmed is the King’s trip to Turkey, timed for the country’s admission (yeah, right) into the EU. Nicolas is every bit the regal monarch expected in the 21st century: measured, bland, trained to speak little and express less. Even his valet Carlos De Vos (Titus De Voogdt) talks more. Then they get the call: Wallonia has seceded. Obviously they need to return, yet a solar storm cuts off not just the phone but all air traffic, and Kerim Bulut (Valentin Ganev), deputy head of Turkish Security, tells the party they may have to wait a week before leaving.
Not an option, of course, so the King suggests they drive via the Balkans. Moreau nixes the idea (“It’s the Balkans!”), but Lloyd befriends Ana (Nina Nikolina), a Bulgarian folk singer with the Black Sea Sirens, and disguised in colorful traditional costumes, the royal entourage are smuggled on the women’s bus and out of Turkey. What follows is a very amusing trek through Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and Albania (though shooting was all done in Bulgaria), involving Kukeri figures just like in “Toni Erdmann,” a yogurt jury, a former Serbian sniper (Goran Radaković), and lots of potent rakia.
One of the most appealing aspects of “King of the Belgians” is that for all the gentle ribbing, there’s nothing here to offend anyone: This is a genuinely nice movie that even Philippe, the real reigning monarch of the Belgians, could find delightful. Nicolas may be a stuffed shirt at first, but that’s what centuries of breeding does (and Van den Begin perfectly captures that ultra-composed royal placidity); when the occasion calls for extraordinary measures, he rises to the call of duty and takes charge. And while the Balkans have a Wild West element about them, it’s tempered by good people — even Dragan, the over-the-top Serbian ex-sniper, who could so easily be merely a cartoon sadist with no remorse, is haunted by what he did during the war.
About the only people who might be disappointed are the directors’ devoted fans who expected something more along the lines of “The Fifth Season.” Yet “King” is firmly in mockumentary road-trip mode, which means camerawork that appears to be done on the fly (but only appears to be), off-kilter framing, and heaps of supposedly off-the-cuff set-ups. It’s hard to imagine anyone unable to open themselves up to the film’s gentle joshing. One criticism however: a little less of Grieg’s “Peer Gynt Suite 1,” please.