Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Misfortunates [De helaasheid der dingen]

Felix Van Groeningen | 2009 | 108 mins | Belgium

This utterly charming Belgian (and Flemish) entry in this year's Directors' Fortnight is among the best things I saw in Cannes. Adapted from a very successful autobiographical novel by Dimitri Verhulst,
the film follows Gunther Strobbe, a 13 year old boy in the late '70s / early '80s who lives in his grandmother's ramshackle house in a small town in Belgium with his alcoholic father (a postman with more bars on his route than any of his colleagues) and three alcoholic uncles. It's undeniable that life with the Strobbe clan is not merely a bit dysfunctional but truly damaging for the young boy, and yet the family is so full of genuine love that it's hard to fully condemn them.

Gunther tells the story from an adult perspective, and it's left quite beautifully ambiguous until the end whether he managed to transcend or escape his family heritage. Real life is more complex than just "getting out of the old neighbourhood", and The Misfortunates handles these realities with heart and humour.

The Strobbe men mean well, sort of. They just can't help fucking everything up, all the time. The film is full of raw, dirty, hilarious vignettes (such as the naked bicycle race through town, pictured above), vulgar humour, pathos and a bit of cynicism. The Strobbes enter drinking contests, piss themselves and end up in hospital, pick up women, break furniture, and invade a neighbour's house in order to watch their beloved Roy Orbison on television (theirs has been repossessed).

It might have been the tear-jerker hit of the year if Ken Loach had been given the script, but in the hands of Felix Van Groeningen, this film has the raw, dirty, Flemish edge that made 2007's Ex Drummer so memorable. The comparison with Ex Drummer is only one of a vaguely common "Flemish vibe", mind you. The Misfortunates is nowhere near as dark. Any film that features a smiling 12 year old girl drunk in a bar singing the 'pussy song' clearly has to be far more heartwarming than bleak.

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