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Kisangani is a major commercial port city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Under Belgian colonization it was known as Stanleyville, after Welsh-American explorer Henry Morton Stanley, of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame. Stanley had been tapped by Belgian King Leopold II to establish a foothold for eventual annexation of the region. In 1897 Stanley was knighted for his exploits, and served in British parliament from 1895 to 1900.

A photograph of Stanley watches over the lost souls populating Maxwell McCabe-Lokos’s dark satire Stanleyville, I think, to underscore the lengths gone and misplaced values placed on idiotic goals, be it the subjugation of other people or, in Stanleyville’s case, a contest prize in the form of an orange sport utility vehicle. 

Maria (Susanne West) works an unspecified, meaningless office job, her coworkers so disconnected from their surroundings that a bird slamming into a window goes unnoticed. One day she’s approached by a recruiter named Homunculus (Julian Richings, who would have made a great, less distracting Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One) to take part in a nonsensical contest to win the aforementioned vehicle. In alchemy, a homunculus is an artificial human. It’s all terribly clever.

Maria finds herself in an apartment with four other strange contestants, each hoping to fill some howling void that cannot possibly be sated by the ostensible prize at stake (Cara Ricketts’s performance stands out, her character’s fixation on Pyrrhic victory driving the film’s best moments). The game consists of eight rounds, each so increasingly arbitrary in design and criteria that they might as well have been concocted by Homunculus, serving as sole judge, on the spot. In this way Stanleyville resembles minimalist social experiment thrillers Cube and Circle, in which sets of human archetypes are pitted against each other in draconian systems whose purposes are beyond their understanding. 

However Stanleyville’s explicit reference point is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, in which a group of British schoolchildren are stranded on a desert island and quickly reduced to lawless violence. Maria at one point fashions a conch into a radio contraption with blinking lights able to receive otherworldly messages of possibly malignant intent. It looks neat! 

The thing about Lord of the Flies is that it suggests we’re violent animals without the strong arm of the state keeping us in line. Stanleyville doesn’t maintain any such faith in institutions; Maria’s professional and private lives are empty at the start of the movie, and so the contest becomes an existential quest to graft meaning onto something inherently, aggressively meaningless. A quote attributed to Stanley is inscribed under the portrait, which reads: “Granted that I know little of my real self, still, I am the best evidence for myself.” Maria internalizes the quote, repurposing it as the lyrics to a global anthem intended to unite the world. It doesn’t, but does manage to beat a song advertising protein powder.

Everything in Stanleyville is arch and broad, its characters live action cartoons in their mannerisms and personalities. But even at a brisk 89 minutes, the whole thing starts to buckle under its numerous contrivances and references, eventually becoming more intellectual exercise than comedy delivery system. Stanleyville’s a weird movie, perhaps destined for cult status. I just wish it were a funnier one.

Stanleyville (2021)

Runtime: 89 minutes

MPA Rating: PG-13

Streaming: Not yet streaming

Myles Mikulic holds a BA in Film and TV from Cal State University Northridge, an MA in History and Archival Studies from Claremont Graduate University, and is a History doctoral candidate at the same....