'The Misfortunates': Living Off Beer And A Little Love

Kenneth Vanbaeden, Koen De Graeve, Wouter Hendrickx, Johan Heldenbergh i i

Fearsome Foursome: A 13-year-old named Gunther (Kenneth Vanbaeden, fourth from left) lives with his father and three raucous uncles, but he often feels like the only grown-up. Menuet/IDTV Films hide caption

itoggle caption Menuet/IDTV Films
Kenneth Vanbaeden, Koen De Graeve, Wouter Hendrickx, Johan Heldenbergh

Fearsome Foursome: A 13-year-old named Gunther (Kenneth Vanbaeden, fourth from left) lives with his father and three raucous uncles, but he often feels like the only grown-up.

Menuet/IDTV Films

The Misfortunates
(De helaasheid der dingen)

  • Director: Felix van Groeningen
  • Genre: Tragicomedy
  • Running Time: 108 minutes
Not Rated

With: Koen De Graeve, Johan Heldenburg, Kenneth Vanbaeden, Wouter Hendrickx

Flemish with English subtitles

(Recommended)

If Ken Loach and Roberto Benigni went into a bar, drank themselves into a stupor and emerged the next morning with a screenplay, it might look a lot like The Misfortunates. Reeking of beer, vomit and stale cigarette smoke, this blue-collar coming-of-age tale from the Flemish filmmaker Felix van Groeningen is being billed as a comedy, and we can see why: Grown men racing bicycles naked have a certain pneumatic charm. But scenes like this are the honey that makes the medicine go down, because the emotions van Groeningen dares to access are so shockingly honest — and so alien to most mainstream American movies — that appalled laughter is often our only possible response.

Adapting Dimitri Verhulst's semi-autobiographical novel, van Groeningen and his co-writer, Christophe Dirickx, dump us unceremoniously into the heart of the Strobbe household, where 13-year-old Gunther (Kenneth Vanbaeden) is attempting to grow up among men who never have. Cycling in and out of rehab, hospital and prison, Gunther's alcoholic dad, Marcel (Koen De Graeve), and his three uncles (Wouter Hendrickx, Johan Heldenbergh and Bert Haelvoet) spend their days boozing, whoring and gambling away Marcel's mailman salary. Luckily, their long-suffering mother (Gilda De Bal) keeps a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs to buffer the oceans of beer.

Wouter Hendrickx i i

The Man-Child: Wouter Hendrickx plays Lowie "Petrol" Strobbe, one of Gunther's perpetually drunk uncles, who attempts to bring Gunther into manhood. Menuet/IDTV Films hide caption

itoggle caption Menuet/IDTV Films
Wouter Hendrickx

The Man-Child: Wouter Hendrickx plays Lowie "Petrol" Strobbe, one of Gunther's perpetually drunk uncles, who attempts to bring Gunther into manhood.

Menuet/IDTV Films

It's a home filled with love and violence, lust and misogyny — contradictions Gunther struggles to resolve. His mother, identified only as "the filthy whore," is long gone, and his mulleted male elders (it's the 1980s) are too busy bonding over Roy Orbison and public urination to notice Gunther's unhappiness. "Beautiful things got destroyed — or left our village," he notices, and the film is filled with these acidic yet strangely poetic observations. At one point, the adult Gunther (Valentijn Dhaenens), now a 30-something poet, delivers a soliloquy on train travel that's both staggeringly true and bleakly beautiful, effortlessly encapsulating the film's thematic blend of tenderness and raw honesty.

Matching the artistry of the narration, director of photography Ruben Impens moves his camera with drunken exuberance, woozily tracking the Strobbe men's exploits and caroming around the cramped family home. Away from that dysfunction, however, the camera calms down to observe the adult Gunther's dismay upon learning that his girlfriend is pregnant and his fervent hope that the baby will die. (I warned you about those emotions.)

Bawdy, boisterous and unfailingly clear-eyed, The Misfortunates wonders whether it's possible for damaged offspring to raise children of their own. An earlier translation of the film's title was "The Alasness of Things," a lovely evocation of Gunther's worldview and of a story that makes us view his future with increasing trepidation. "Life went on," he muses at one point, before continuing: "Of course, that's what sometimes makes it difficult." Amen to that.

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