The Belgian black comedy The Misfortunates opens this weekend and plays until May 6. Jay Stone of The Ottawa Citizen has given it a glowing review. Check it out:
Dysfunction spun into a fine yarn
Belgian boy’s growing-up told as a tragicomedy
By Jay Stone, The Ottawa Citizen; Canwest News Service
April 30, 2010
In the gallery of all-time dysfunctional families, Belgian division, we submit the Strobbes: four brothers who are ribald, shiftless, alcoholic, and aggressive. If they work, they spend all their money on beer. If they don’t, they spend all their money on beer. Their diet consists of french fries with mayonnaise and resentment (and beer). They live with their saintly mother, who is apt to clean off the TV set before it’s repossessed by the bailiffs. They smoke and sing unsavoury pub songs, occasionally stopping to break something. They’re too big for their house — a crowded, weedy little place beside the railway tracks in a Belgian town with the particularly evocative name of Reetveerdegem — and practically too big for The Misfortunates, the movie that tries to contain their boozy, disgusting bulk.
It also loves them, and indeed, the Strobbes are a big-hearted, one-for-all kind of clan, at least until an inexplicable mood shift turns them into the small-minded beat-up-your-son kind. The Misfortunates is the story of Gunther (Kenneth Vanbaeden), a mullet-haired 13-year-old who lives with his grandmother, his uncles — an unshaven and boisterous lot with nicknames like Petrol and Beefcake — and his father, Marcel (Koen De Graeve), who is divorced from the woman he now refers to as “a filthy whore.” As for the boy, he’s the son of a filthy whore, at least until Marcel gets all sentimental and decides he loves the boy after all.
Gunther, the product of a quick skirt-raiser behind the local pub, is growing up with that mixture of pride and confusion that attends such families.
You can almost smell the spilled lager and spewed vomit — in one scene, Marcel awakes to find a kitten licking it off his blanket — and you may want to have your clothes dry-cleaned, so thick is the air of cigarette smoke.
The Misfortunates is a terrible, frightening, funny, and warm comic horror, directed by Felix Van Groeningen — and based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Dmitri Verhulst — that takes place in the 1980s, when Gunther sits with his dad and his uncles, quaffing booze and being assured that life really begins once he gets laid, and occasionally in the present, where the adult Gunther (Valentijn Dhaenens) tries to find a way through that very post-virginal life.
This doesn’t always work: Adult Gunther is cruel to his girlfriend, just another of the mistreated women in The Misfortunates. It’s terrible, but then suddenly the film turns warm, or at least so terrible, it’s funny.
Moving between distaste and low comedy, it’s a series of sketches featuring the Strobbe brothers as they burst into a neighbour’s house so they can see Roy Orbison on TV — the boys feel a deep connection to the singer, and watching them dance to Pretty Woman is a sight you won’t soon forget — or take part in a naked bicycle race, or a monumental beer-drinking competition, after which they go home to drink beer.
A lot of this seems to occur beside railway tracks or under trestles: The clatter of trains is like a metaphor in The Misfortunates, and at one stage, the older Gunther looks out of a train window and notes that, unlike cars, the railroad takes you past the world’s backyards, where you can see its underwear hanging on the line. The Misfortunates is itself like that train, stopping for a while near the underwear of the Strobbes boys, so to speak. It’s not a pretty sight.
Growing up is always a tragicomedy, but Van Groeningen has distilled it to its alcoholic essence and given us a taste of a rollicking terror that can sometimes, it turns out, produce a story worth telling. Or as Gunther says in voice-over narration, “Life went on, of course. That’s what makes it difficult sometimes.”
The Misfortunates ***** (In Flemish with English subtitles) Starring: Kenneth Vanbaeden, Koen De Graeve Directed by: Felix Van Groeningen Rating: 18A (coarse language, nudity, alcohol abuse) Playing at: The Mayfair Theatre, through May 6
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