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Belgian film finds humor and misery in a dysfunctional family

DVD Review: The Misfortunates

Based on the book, De helaasheid der dingen, by Belgian writer Dimitri Verhulst, Felix Van Groeningen’s award winning film, The Misfortunates will soon be available on DVD. Through lengthy flashbacks, the film tells the story of unpublished writer Gunther Strobbe’s childhood and his dysfunctional family. It concentrates on his thirteenth year, but there are even flashbacks within that taking us back to his birth. His mother and father are divorced. She is remarries and wants nothing to do with the boy. He lives with his father, a drunk, three disreputable uncles: one a gambler, one a womanizer, one a hot head, and his elderly grandmother.

The men spend their time carousing and brawling. They don’t seem to have any jobs and certainly have no sense of responsibility, but what they do have is a sense of family solidarity, and even something approaching, at least by their lights, honor. They feel bound to stand up for one another. Gunther is played by fourteen-year-old Kenneth Vanbaeden in his first acting experience of any kind. On the one hand, Gunther must deal with the men’s irresponsible behavior and bad reputations, while on the other, beneath all the drama, feels a love for them and even an admiration for their devil-may-care attitude toward living. They may be reprobates, but they are fun.

This is the duality that runs through the film. One minute you are laughing at the antics of one brother or the other, the next you are horrified at some atrocious infantile behavior. The brothers take part in a naked bicycle race. They dress up as women and get drunk. There is a beer drinking contest and beer guzzling game based on the Tour de France. There is a Roy Orbison sing-along in the home of some unwary neighbors. If not necessarily hilarious, these are among the film’s best comic moments. They are scenes, however, juxtaposed against scenes of children getting drunk and singing raunchy drinking songs.

One of the uncles has sex with his girlfriend on the bed next to his supposedly sleeping nephew. Gunther’s father tries to attack him with a knife in a drunken fury. Van Groeningen has you laughing one moment, and the next asking how you could have been laughing at these brutal misfits. Gunther’s world is a complex place where it isn’t always easy to distinguish the good guys from the bad, where it is never very easy to distinguish between good and evil.

The flashbacks are interspersed with scenes from the life of the older Gunther, so we are given a window into the effects this childhood environment have had on him. In some respects, he seems to have inherited some of his family’s male genes. On the one level he dresses up as a woman and goes partying, just like his uncles. Even more importantly, he gets the woman he is living with pregnant, and then tries to walk out on her when she refuses to get an abortion.

The trouble is, that, here too, things aren’t so black and white. There is another side. He works hard at his writing. In fact he seems to be trying to come to terms with his youth and his family through the book he is working on, which is undoubtedly the story that we are being told in the flashbacks. He is kind and caring to his grandmother, now in a nursing home. We are even treated to a scene where he teaches his young son to ride a bicycle. He has escaped the brutishness of his family. Clearly heredity and environment are not the only elements in building character. What else there may be is not defined, but there is obviously something in Gunther that saves him from the family ‘curse.’

The Misfortunates is a complex film that deserves all the attention it has gotten. It was the Belgian entry in the foreign film category for the 2009 Academy Award. It won a special mention from the Cinema Award Jury at the Cannes Director’s Fortnight and a number of awards from the 2009 Hamptons Film Festival. It was also an official selection at several international film festivals, including the prestigious Toronto International.

The film does use subtitles.

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