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I attended the North American Premiere of "The Misfortunates" at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. Director Felix van Groeningen introduced the film with a few caveats about the drunkenness and debauchery to come. He was correct. The film is filled with humor and pathos, presenting some painfully brutal characterizations of life in Belgium for a 13-year-old boy living in a house of alcoholics. Equal parts comedy and tragedy, "The Misfortunates" can be painful to watch at times but the payoff is worth it. Shot cinema verité style, the artful use of color and texture combined with copious amounts of bawdy humor make this film an audience favorite.
I saw this last month at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival where the film's director Felix van Groeningen attended my screening to take an audience Q&A following the film. Adapted from the Dimitri Verhulst novel by van Groeningen and Christopher Dirickx this is the story of young Gunter Strobe (Kenneth Vanbaeden) being brought up by his single and alcoholic father Marcel (Koen de Graeve) after his mother walked out on them. They live at grandma Strobe's (Gilda de Bal) house along with Gunter's hard partying uncles Petrol (Wouter Hendrickx), Beefcake (Johan Heldenbergh) and Koen (Bert Haelvort). the white trash family is so out of control that it's amazing that social services haven't taken Gunter out of this environment a long time ago, although they have threatened to. It's grandma Strobe with the only sensibility and sense of stability and guidance that keeps Gunter in the home but she has reached the point of exasperation in her the behavior of her sons. Valentijn Dhaenens plays the older Gunter looking back at his his childhood years and giving gratitude to his grandmother. this is an excellent cast. I only wish the grandmother's character was more developed and their was more of an on screen presence of her and also a little more of Gunter's mother and her marriage years to Marcel. The character of uncle Koen is underdeveloped as well. Many might find this film about a distasteful family distasteful as well but there is a lot to like in this relatively slow film and lots of dark comedy and genuine tragedy. This was Belgium's official submission to the 82nd Academy Awards for Best foreign Language film. It's van Groeningen's third film and the third time is a charm and I like this film. I'll look forward to more from the young director and more with a bigger budget hopefully. I loved the Roy Orbison scene. I would recommend this and give it an 8.5 out of 10.
I saw this movie yesterday. I was drawn to it because it won the golden Amphora at the "Festival de Quend du film grolandais", an independent movie festival. Seeing the film poster with naked hairy guys cycling, I knew that I would have some fun but how far will they go? In fact, the movie alternates quite hilarious scenes with drunk people with more dramatic sequences. With this consideration, the movie is finally closer to English dramedies that are used to show working class characters and, finally, whatever strange they are, you feel some sympathy for those guys. It's quite comforting to see people who don't care about the others (or perhaps even about anything) but you also see that there are consequences. For sure, this movie is not about preventing the audience from drinking or about giving any lesson. Following the story of Gunther, you just follow the day to day life of a hillbilly family with its ups and downs (a little more ups in the movie). Like they say in "Les cahiers du cinema", Felix van Groeningen makes you love and care for these model people in the same manner as John Cassavetes was able to do. In a nutshell, go and see it (except if you are a feminist of course).
The Misfortunates was a 2009 release at Cannes, and it is based on a
novel by Dimitri Verhulst. It is a startling, rowdy piece that wedges
in more authenticity and excitement than most American releases we see
at the multiplexes. It's a coming-of-age story that works, because the
people involved feel connected to the material. In other words,
director Felix Van Groeningen has made a film that isn't just
entertaining; it's genuine, as well. He avoids simplifying the tone of
his work, and the result is an engaging but often shocking experience.
The plot revolves around Gunther Strobbe (played in his younger years by Kenneth Vanbaeden, and Valentijn Dhaenens as an adult). Instead of intently studying Gunther as a character, the story investigates his environment and, most importantly, his family. Within the first few minutes of the film, the audience is made aware of the bizarreness they are about to be a part of. In a scene involving some drunken cross-dressing, Groeningen uses jump-cuts and seemingly random splices of black-and-white footage. The ideas explored in the picture are disorienting, so the storytelling is equally unusual.
The energy of the introductory scenes is maintained throughout, and that is one of the biggest strong points in this film. The philosophy of the Strobbes is sometimes sickening, but there is enough sweetness and humanity to connect with the audience. The family draws a parallel between their history and Roy Orbison's career; when Orbison has a musical comeback, it is a sign that there are great things to come for the Strobbes.
For every offbeat nostalgic moment, there are five that depict alcohol abuse and sexual depravity. This isn't a one-dimensional portrait, and Groeningen uses the pleasant elements of the movie to ease into the uglier ones. In one offsetting scene, Gunther's father orders him to expose his penis to prove that he is indeed his son. Later on in the film, the protagonist's brother tells him that "real life starts once you have a good f--k." This is an unflinching examination of a group of people, and that's what makes it special and effective. The plot is difficult to summarize, because this isn't a film that is based around formulaic storytelling. It's a series of extreme events that brought one character from boyhood into adulthood.
Groeningen has made a beautiful film. Not "beautiful" in the sense that it's warm and inviting and pretty. It's evocative and sharply photographed and true. It's sometimes difficult to look at, but it's even more difficult to turn away.
What is it about Belgian Directors? They manage to make films which are
about working-class people, full of hard knocks and everyday misery...
and yet, not only is there a joie de vivre between the lines, but
sweetness and fun. The Misfortunates reminds me very much of the kind
of films by the Frères Dardenne...La Promesse, Le Fils... sort of like
Ken Loach, but without the total grimness of his vision.
The story is told from the point of view of a young man remembering his time as a thirteen-year-old... at the point where he is taken away from his family because of the degrading environment. I'm not going to go into a description of the film... simply to say that in all the films mentioned above, what shines out especially are the incredibly realistic performances...you totally forget that these are actors, and you learn something about the way "the other half lives", which may horrify you or disgust you, but somewhere in all that, their humanity wins you over. I find this to be a particularly Belgian trait...I can't think of any serious French films that have this capacity for realism, grittiness and humanity. And the ability to make you like something about all the characters, no matter how objectionable they might be for the most part. And of course, these days, there is nothing comparable coming from America, where everything is formulaic. (The closest I've seen to this kind of realism recently in American film is Winters Bone... which comes close but is too manufactured to work on a deeper level.)
The Misfortunates is not to be missed.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A struggling author, Gunther, is seen as the story begins. Like most
writers, he is trying to put into a book his experiences. Gunther's
childhood was a traumatic experience. Growing up in a small Belgian
town, he was surrounded by male figures during his formative years. His
mother was absent and had no input in his upbringing. So Gunther has to
rely on his loutish father and uncles for role models, that in a way,
marked his life forever. The only female during those formative years
were his grandmother, Meetje, who had no vote in whatever was important
for the boy, or his future.
Gunther was not a model student. Part of the problem was his inner conflict in which his family interfered in the way others saw him. Gunther is rejected by the only boy, Franky, that ever showed a semblance of being a true friend. Franky's father, decided his son didn't need a bad influence in his life, so the two became distant, as the worlds they both came from.
Being at the center of a hard drinking family also was a factor in Gunther's development. He saw his own father and uncles go to binges of drinking that rendered them useless. As Gunther gets older his relationship with a young woman is threatened when she becomes pregnant and he doesn't want her to have the baby. Gunther's, as a writer, experiences the rejection from publishers until a Dutch editor sees the merit of his life experiences in the novels he goes to write. The arrival of the baby soften Gunther's soul and then becomes the man he always wanted to be.
We were pleasantly surprised by what director Felix Van Groeningen was able to achieve with this film. He contributed to the screenplay in collaboration with Christophe Dirickx and Dimitri Verhulst. The Belgian cinema offers a different mixture of original ideas, that in the hands of the creator of this film, gives audiences a peek into a different way to present stories that capture the viewer's imagination.
Never saw Kenneth Vanbaeden, the young actor who plays Gunther as a young man. He reminds us of a young Ricky Schroeder when he was a child star in the American cinema. Mr. Vanbaeden is a natural; he gives an effortless performance as the child that grows without guidance and who owes everything he became to his grandmother's wishes to separate him from an alcoholic father and uncles that were leading him to a life of binging and perpetual drunkenness. Valentin Dhaenens is fine as the older Gunther. Koen De Graeve, an actor we admired in "Loft" plays Celle, the father that lives in a constant fog, neglecting his son. Gilda De Bal is effective as Meetje. The supporting cast is excellent.
Ruben Impens photographed the small Belgian town in all its drabness. The incidental music is by Jef Neve. We look forward to the next project of director Felix Van Groeningen, a talented voice from that part of the world with a lot to say.
When you think of Belgium, many things might pop to your mind, but certainly not this harsh comedy-drama about the dysfunction that tops all disfunctions. The Strobbes, working (although almost nobody is working),class family consists of 4 loutish sons, stoic mother and the 13-year old son of one of the brothers, with more potential than all of them together. And there is almost nothing else but excessive drinking, and all the things that come with it. Cruelty, violence, hangover and such a waste of both lives and space. This is harsh picture of a family, that doesn't know how else to connect but through getting smashed. The scene that stands out is incredibly hard to watch. When the boys father comes from rehab for a weekend, healthier and stronger, his brothers slowly draw him back to the pit he tried to escape. Strange and disturbing movie, but I have a feeling one that you don't forget soon.
I know one shouldn't mix reviews with personal experiences, but when
watching this film I couldn't help but constantly remember an anecdote
that happened to me one New Year's morning in Brussels: trying to cure
my party hangover with some friends in a bar, we observed a guy trying
to cross the street with a crate of beer. Now the streets were all
frozen over and the king had advised in his New Year's address to stay
at home. Plus the roads in Brussels are caved in by traffic. So the
weight of the crate kept the guy sliding towards the middle of the
street. He could make it to either side without, but not with the
crate. Nevertheless, he kept trying for over an hour to pull, shove or
otherwise move the crate from where it was stuck - until he found the
ingenious solution: He drank six bottles of beer on the spot, thereby
sufficiently reducing the weight to pull the crate over - only that he
got so drunk and spaced out in the process that he slipped and broke
all of the bottles, so his whole effort came to naught.
This little story has nothing and everything to do with 'Misfortunates' which is chock full of incidents like this one. And as abundant films about losers and social misfits may be in Belgian/ Dutch cinema (like Aaltra, The Sexual Life of Belgians, Flodders, Spetters), this one takes the cake in every respect: the autobiographical story is perfectly adapted and wonderfully played. Its provides tons of utterly irrelevant, but amusing add-ons like when the Strubbes invite themselves over to an exiled Iranian couple to force them into watching a Roy Orbison concert because their TV's been repossessed. Like in my little story, one cannot help but somewhat admire the persistence of the Strubbe family to make their lives as dysfunctional as humanly possible, while one cannot ignore the destructiveness of it all.
If you like painfully real social dramedy, this one is for you; if your threshold for witnessing the lower recesses of human behavior isn't very high, you're likely to find 'Misfortunates' an extremely tasteless affair.
... you can always count on tears, blood, placenta and spilt beer.
Having said this, this film uses all of them to good effect. This brutal confrontation with the Flanders of Pieter Brueghel and Jacques Brel, is not without its pathetic and touching moments. It reminded me a lot of Quebec's "C.R.A.Z.Y" in its enthusiasms for its subject but with, of course, much more squalor.
The actors are all convincing and attractive in their own way and the direction is transparent and unobtrusive. The viewer should be warned that the opus is generously peppered with scenes of fornication, sometimes public, pissing, sometimes public, defecation, sometimes public, vomiting, sometimes public, public male nudity and transvestism, not to mention lots and lots of binge drinking.
I liked the anecdote in the "making of" documentary telling how one of the father's fake moustaches was fashioned from the male actors' and crew's pubic hair. It seemed fitting somehow.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I don't know what to think of this movie. It was one of the best movies
I have ever seen, but also one of the most gross.
Many scenes are just gross (eg: when the neglected house cat eats the puke of father, when father is pissing in his pants while he is sitting on a chair during a beer drinking game, when some of the brothers shoot a pigeon when it shits on the bedsheets, ...) But it is also a sympathizing movie. Almost everything is filmed in the eyes of a 13 year boy who lives together with his beer drinking asocial, ill-mannered family. It are actually his father, some uncles and his grandmother. The grandmother is very tiny, has nothing to say and is not in position to change house rules nor the way of life. The boy is raised by those men and unaware of his marginal life. He just follows his uncles in their tracks (and begins to drink, smoke, ... and joins all those nasty events with his uncles).
The beauty of the movie is: you just get pity with the boy.
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