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|Index||26 reviews in total|
Ask me what time it is. Very very very strange and very entertaining bit of European cinema from Wacko Jaco Van Dormael, a former circus clown turned director. This film about fate, love, and childhood fantasies gone awry is very hard to describe. Imagine a kids film directed by Lars Von Trier, add a dash of "Amelie," a scent of "Donnie Darko," a sprinkle of Lynchian strangeness, and a good heaping of Terry Gilliam inspired wackiness, place in a blender, then travel back in time (as this movie came long before and probably inspired "Amelie" and "Donnie Darko") and voilà, you'll have "Toto." Sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes funny (everybody seems to love those dancing tulips), sometimes weird, always captivating, this is a film for people who enjoy non-linear and creative story-telling. Also, that much talked about floating plastic bag stuff from "American Beauty" is taken straight from this film's unforgettable final scenes. Dormael seemed to have so much good stuff going on in this film, it's ashame he's only made one film since this, as any film buff who watches it will no doubt imagine a few more great films being pulled out of Dormael's magician's hat.
Jaco van Dormael, I love you. When I first saw this film in a dilapidated
arts cinema in Cambridge on a cold winter's night, I wasn't expecting
The only review I'd read was mildly sniffy. It was French, it was about la
condition humaine. I thought it'd be a reasonable way to pass a couple of
When I emerged from that dark pit of a cinema, I felt, at least for a while, as if my eyesight had been transformed. As we walked back to my friend's flat, I became fixated on one thing after another - the rain upon the cobbles, the light on the church, the darkness of the sky - I felt about five years old all over again. Since then, this film has never been out of my top five. And probably never will.
That is not say it's perfect. It's message is perhaps a little too bleak for my liking, and it does indulge itself in the precept that life it utterly meaningless. But how the visuals of the film contradict that sentiment! Every shot filled with colour, with life, with imagination.
In a way, Toto is an old-fashioned film - a thriller in the Third Man/Citizen Kane mold - a complex story unfolding in a semi-linear fashion, in this case throughout one man's whole life. Dour realism this certainly ain't. A wonderfully naive 40s (?) style chanson reappears, as the adult 'Van Chickensoup' watches his dead father sing from the back of a truck in front of him. Flowers sway in time to the song. The child truly believes that his father met his mother by landing in the garden from a parachute. Scene after scene of joyful play follow each other.
But this is no art-house foppery. This is a tight, mean, well-constructed tale about the feeling that dogs us all - is this all life is? Could I have been happier as someone else? Are they happier than me? Am I lucky or unlucky? And most importantly, this: Why, when life seems so hard at times, can we find so much joy in small things, in a flower, or a kiss, or crazy weather, or new clothes?
Forget the French subtitles, a fact that seems to put off so many North American and British viewers, forget the 'art-house' tag. I own this film and have shown it to scores of friends, all of whom have walked away astonished at its vision. I assure you that you will love this film.
It's alright, you don't have to thank me, spreading the word is enough. ;-) Watch it today! And then watch the Eighth Day, Van Dormael's astonishing second feature.
The first movie from Belgium director Jaco Van Dormael is pure magic. It's
what cinema should always be.
I've just seen the movie, for the third time, on TV past midnight yesterday and I couldn't close my eyes. Why ? Because Van Dormael knows how to tell a story. Also, you become very attached to all the character, bad and good one.
The cinematography give you the impression that you are dreaming. The camera is so light and the colors are so bright so you know that the imagination of Thomas, the "Toto" from the title, is working very hard to remember exactly what happened in his childhood.
If you love a good story with a very interesting plot, this is the one.
This movie is sheer visual poetry. Although it is in subtitles and I don't speak a lick of French, I found myself not needing to read the subtitles as the visuals told the entire story. This is rather impressive, as the story is very complicated. It tells the tale of one man's life by interweaving four different elements of his life: Childhood, Middle-Age, Old-Age, and a Film Noir Fantasy World. To give it even more of a chance of being confusing, these elements are not shown chronologically. However, "Toto..." is not confusing at all. It pulls off this complicated plot beautifully. This movie truly is a Modern Day Classic!! DVD? When? Criterion Edition!
Thomas is a bitter old man who feels he has been cheated out of the
life that was rightly his because he and another boy were switched at
birth during a fire at the hospital. Alfred, the other boy, lives a
life of privilege and becomes rich. Thomas is jealous. But in another
sense Thomas needs to believe that he was switched because he falls in
love with his sister Alice. If he really was switched, they are not
This is just one of the ironic witticisms spun out by Jaco van Dormael, who wrote and directed this striking and totally original bit of life triumphant. Veteran French actor Michel Bouquet plays Thomas as an old man, sneaking cigarettes in the old folks home, reliving his memories, plotting his revenge. Jo De Backer plays Thomas as a slightly nerdish young man, consumed by the loss of his beloved sister in a fire when she was about eleven or twelve. One day by accident he spots a woman who reminds him of his sister. He follows her, they fall in love, and it turns out she is married to Alfred! Thomas Godet plays the little boy Thomas with charm and a touching vulnerability. He is picked on and bullied by Alfred and his friends who taunt him with, "van Chickensoup!" (I wonder if the French Academie approves of this vulgar Anglais.) Sandrine Blancke plays Thomas's cute and impish older sister. Mireille Perrier plays Evelyne, who is the woman who reminds Thomas of his sister.
In a sense this is a romantic comedy, but be warned that in the French cinema a hint of incest is seldom looked on as shocking, rather as something almost akin to nostalgia. And certainly every woman should have a lover and every man a mistress. In another sense this is an art film that plays with time, using both flashbacks and flash forwards to present a story filled with spooky coincidences, punctuated with fantasy and a kind of naturalistic glorification of life epitomized in the catchy tune, "Boom!" that weaves its way in and out of the story, a tune you might have trouble getting out of your head, so be forewarned. ("Boom! When your heart goes boom! It's love, love, love!" written and performed by Charles Trenet.) There is also as aspect of sentimentality, especially in the resolution, that provides a sweet contrast with the naturalistic pathos. When the words that Alice spoke as a child is reprised by Evelyne (although she could not have known what Alice had said) we are delighted, and Thomas is a little rattled.. ("Do you like my hands?" she asks, holding them up. "Which hand do you prefer?")
The bitter old man learns that he really had the better of it all along (and so he does somewhat the opposite of what he had intended) and indeed we in the audience realize that how we might feel about life, looking back on it, might really just depend on how we choose to feel about it. Dormael's message seems to be that love makes life worth living. We are left with the sense that there is a time for love, and that time passes, and we have to accept that and celebrate the memory.
Best scene: Ten-year-old Thomas sees his perhaps 11-year-old sister rising out of the bath tub. (We see only his widening eyes; this is a discreet movie.) He says, "I...didn't know you had breasts." She replies (deadpanning the pride of a pre-adolescence girl), "I thought you'd read about them in the newspapers."
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The 1991 Belgian film "Toto le Heros" ("Toto the Hero") is a slick
little expressionistic allegory which should be extremely depressing as
it presents the process of living as a damned if you do-damned if you
don't choice. And that choice as something which is made for each
person by their basic nature and the events that shape their early
life. The film follows two childhood neighbors who were born about the
same time but into very different circumstances. Their parallel
destinies occasionally touch each other and finally merge at the end,
although the end is shown at the beginning and the story then told in a
series of fluid non-linear flashbacks. It is the only film that begins
with a person simultaneously choking on a sweet, being shot in the
back, strangling in a curtain, and drowning?
While most of the flashbacks are done realistically there are some with an expressionistic style; those linked together by the catchy theme song "When Your Heart Goes Boom" are especially cool. Also noteworthy is the shelf of toy soldiers who march to their destruction as the plane's vibrations topple them off the edge.
Thomas Van Hasebroeck (teasingly nicknamed Van Chickensoup) is a lifelong dreamer because he fears action and commitment after his precocious sister (Alice) is killed because of his demands that she do something that will prove she still loves him. As an old man he finds himself filled with regret over lost opportunities and unfulfilled heroic dreams (insert the title here).
His counterpart, Alfred, lives life as a man of action and privilege, whose life of wrong choices leaves him with a lot of enemies and at least as many regrets as Thomas. From an early age Thomas envied Alfred, even concocting a fantasy about the two of them being switched at birth. Ironically, Alfred has lived his whole life envious of Thomas's seemingly unencumbered life.
Ultimately the story is less depressing than one would expect. In part because of a fair amount of humor and whimsy but also because of the introduction of a third alternative to living. Celestin is Thomas's developmentally disabled brother, content with just appreciating what life offers, an allegorical representation of the "stop and smell the roses" idea. Celestin is very loving and very much at peace with his existence, in one scene he is contently lying on the grass tuned into the movement of a mole tunneling in the ground beneath him.
Sandrine Blancke was especially good as Alice, whose sudden adolescence flowering leaves both Thomas and Alfred hopelessly in love with her; a love that will torment them both for the rest of their lives. My favorite scenes are Alice's determined confrontations with the Blessed Virgin after her father's disappearance.
A big strength of "Toto le Heros" is the directing. There is not a single weak performance, especially amazing because the main characters are portrayed by a succession of actors of differing ages. Writer-director Jaco Van Dormael and his make-up people are the real "Heros" as their physical casting and make-up effects provide utterly believable visual examples of each character at different life stages. It is like watching persons literally age before your eyes.
Thomas, an elderly man lives in an old people's home. He's always been persuaded that he has been inverted with another baby called Alfred, during a fire at the maternity hospital. It means that he should have been Alfred, a wealthy and rough boy, cherished by his parents who fell in love with Thomas' sister, Alice. When he's a grown-up, he'll become a brilliant businessman whereas Thomas, him, will only live a dull and mournful life: his father will die early, he'll become a poor surveyor and when he feels love for a woman called Evelyne who looks like his late sister, Alice, he'll feel betrayed because Evelyne is Alfred's wife! His only way to escape from a destiny that is not the right one is to fancy himself as a secret agent (Toto le héros). So, in the old people's home, Thomas's got a sole idea: killing the "usurpator". Will he succeed in? For his first film, Jaco Van Doarmel showed cleverness, originality and talent. The movie is very close to Etienne Chatiliez's movie: "life is a long quiet river" but in this movie, everybody knew that the two babies had been voluntarily inverted and in Doarmel's film, Thomas remains the only one to be persuaed of being inverted. One of the feats of the film is that it never asserts this hypothesis. We see the fire but we don't know if the intervertion really happened... The movie works like a puzzle as Thomas's thoughts and memories pass by and it links several characters, in different places, at different times. It enables to reconstruct Thomas' bitter life. In parallel, you never lose the thread of the plot (Thomas aims at avenging himself against the one who stole his life). The film abounds in visual brainwaves and is very well served by a watertight screenplay. Moreover, there's an amazing contrast between Thomas's bitter life and Alfred's one (which would be Thomas's real life) that is cherished and successful. But, in the end, Alfred isn't as dreadful as he seems, because I noticed that when he was old, he seemed upset. He's probably marked by Evelyne's departure and don't forget that he's tracked down by terrorists. Always right and agile, the movie, sometimes, succeeds in creating touching moments( when Thomas discovers that Thomas's wife is Evelyne, the woman he loves). At last, Michel Bouquet is excellent in his role of tormented and disillusioned man. Like "eraserhead" by David Lynch, in another register, "Toto le héros" rank among the movies that you must see rather than telling it because it can be seen on several levels.
A hearty recommendation for this film, which deftly kaleidoscopes time. Three actors portray one life at various age stages, through them we see the innocence of childhood and the guilt of autumn years are two sides of the same coign of vantage.
The creative imagination of the protagonist (and the director) are well framed...and it was reassuring that some of the magic that our hero, Thomas, felt as a child stays with him throughout his life, and this film.
Minor caveats for people who
1) dislike non-linear time in a film
2) voice-over narration
But the distinct actors/times make #1 no problem here, better yet the dissolves between them are often lyrical...and I think more accurate to how we remember our time in this world.
Reaffirmed my belief of the power in charged details (shoes in a closet, a pop tune, candy wrappers) and my faith in the beautiful complexity of a simple life.
Take a deep breath... and dive... The movie is about to take you in a
journey trough an extraordinary life... Not very overwhelming, one might
say... but the story of "Toto le héros" is an unpredictable tale about a man
who always thought he was nobody, and found at the very end of his life,
that he was, in fact, a hero...
The very simple storyline is a sketch, for director Jaco Van Dormael, to elaborate a complex visual narration. Since we follow the main character, Toto, throughout his whole life, the movie is full of "time games". Van Dormael uses flash-back and leap in time to get away from a simple linearity. The aproach to dreams is very similar to Terry Gilliam's that we've seen in "Brazil" and "12 Monkeys".
"Toto le héros" is a touching film that will please the movie critics as well as the common viewers.
It is a chef-d'oeuvre...
A most unusual cinematic treat. I happened on this film in the middle.
I was so intrigued by it I scanned the TV guide for a month until I
could see it from beginning to end.
There are more than many comments one can make on his own life. In this film we can make our own judgment on the life of Thomas the Hero. We know from the outset that he feels he has been cheated from his birthright. Can he regain what has been taken from him? Or has he been unable to comprehend the quality of his own life? These issues are dealt with in four stories told almost simultaneously.The resolution is at once redeeming and thought-provoking.
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