Though ostensibly about a little-known chapter in 19th century Chilean history, “King” is really an artful meditation on the mutability of historical memory and the inevitability of decay. Orélie-Antoine de Tounens was a French lawyer who went to South America, claiming in 1860 that the Mapuche natives elected him ruler of Araucanía and Patagonia; he died back in France in 1878, unable to win international recognition for his title or kingdom. Director Niles Atallah (“Lucia”) became intrigued by this improbable story when discovering that facts were few, and written sources by the Mapuche themselves nonexistent. Struck by the way Orélie-Antoine’s tale has faded to near oblivion, and inspired too by the gradual disintegration of celluloid, Atallah crafts a striking experimental feature mixing archival found footage with 8mm and 16mm film he shot and then buried to stimulate decay. Tied together with digitally shot sequences envisioning one of several possible narratives, “King” is a celebration of analog’s changing textures as well as a reverie on historical subjectivity. Adventurous festivals will flock to this bold creation.
Rotterdam’s Special Jury Award acknowledged the challenging nature of the movie, and certainly “King” is not for all audiences. Yet for the cinephile it offers a pleasingly poetic reflection on film as an emotionally rich artifact, subject to the passage of time just as memory itself is honeycombed with lacunae. Atallah divides his picture into nonlinear chapters, with prologue and epilogue, more in the form of a visual essay than a clear-cut narrative. The structure suits the subject, since little is known about Orélie-Antoine, who at some stage changed his spelling to Orllie-Antoine.
In the version Atallah chooses to relate, de Tounens (Rodrigo Lisboa) was a semi-delusional adventurer who traveled with guide Juan Bautista Rosales (Claudio Riveros) to Mapuche territory, long at war with the Chilean government. Once there, he demanded meetings with local chiefs, who elected him their king. Fourteen months later Rosales betrayed Orélie-Antoine to the Chilean authorities, who declared him insane after interrogation and sent him back to France; he returned several times to “his” kingdom, but eventually died in the Dordogne in 1878. Such are the bare bones of the story, which Atallah recounts at times in phantasmagoric ways, such as tribunal scenes in which everyone wears crudely modeled masks. Only the Mapuche themselves are seen in a straightforward manner, ensuring that their representation, so often corrupted by outside sources, remains in their own hands.
Though there’s a certain Don Quixote air about the man, de Tounens isn’t presented as a Romantic figure, and Atallah deliberately avoids weighing in on whether the Mapuche chiefs really elected him their ruler. The director says that masks worn during the interrogation scenes are there to make audiences think about history as controlled codification: since the real people are unknowable, our minds turn them into representations rather than actual figures. Therefore, the masks draw attention to the artificiality of historical reconstruction, further rendered fantastic by figures in animal heads in a scene derived from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Shortly after, men in papier mâché bodies seem to recall the mythical headless South American race reproduced in engravings illustrating Sir Walter Raleigh’s voyages to the New World.
Liberally scattered throughout the film are marvelous silent film clips, largely sourced from Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, showing battles, the pampas, and other landscapes, with their original tints and tones. Atallah and editor Benjamin Mirguet impressively mingle these with the deliberately age 8mm and 16mm footage buried in the director’s garden to chemically induce corroded emulsions, scratches, discoloration and spots. The filmmakers are clearly in love with the textures of celluloid, juxtaposing digital images with grainy analog film and even, toward the end, what looks like a simulation of early 20th century paper prints beautifully layered onto actual early footage. The results are sometimes thrilling and occasionally perplexing, but Atallah’s singular vision forms one of the more accessible and enjoyable avant-garde features of recent years. Keen eyes will note that “prince” Philippe Boiry, the late pretender to the kingdom, is thanked in the closing credits.