by Sarah Pialeprat
- A serious and hilarious comedy by a radical, 31-year-old director. Unveiled in the 2009 Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, the film is Belgian hopeful for the 2010 Oscars
In 2003, Félix van Groeningen thrust his formal radicalism onto the screen in tracing the experiences of a young dealer and a streetwalker in Steve+Sky. Three years later, the young Flemish director returned with With Friends Like These [+see also:
interview: Felix van Groeningen
film profile] in which six people in their 30s waver between insouciance and self-awareness. The Misfortunates [+see also:
interview: Felix van Groeningen
film profile] is the director’s first adaptation of a novel, in which he manages to retain his highly personal style.
Gunther Strobbe doesn’t have an easy life [the film’s original title literally translates into “The Shittiness of Things”]. With publishers sending him rejection letter after rejection letter and a girlfriend who has decided to have his child at all costs, he struggles with a crappy life in which the two people he hates most are his mother ("a whore") and the "bitch" who bears the fruit of his seed, against his will. A trip back to the 1980s will enable us to gradually understand the shittiness of his present situation.
As a teenager, Gunther lives with his grandmother in the aptly named town of Trouduc-les-Oyes (literally meaning “Asshole-the-Geese”). Around him, his father and three uncles make up the Strobbe clan whom the saintly woman tries, in vain, to discipline.
Life is spent within the walls of the house besieged by bailiffs and the cafés of the dreary town where the Strobbes drain their glasses as if their life depended on it, blow their noses in the stars, howl "goddammit" and bawdy songs, cycle along the roads bare-bottomed, piss on unfaithful women, trail their loudmouths under tables and their hangovers in the pale early morning light. The clan is played by remarkable actors who are memorably mouthy.
At once a serious comedy and a hilarious drama, the film depicts some despicable characters without ever lapsing into indulgence or the worst kind of social portrait. In Van Groeningen’s work, this world is embraced just as it is, in all its crudity and cruelty. It is not viewed from an intellectual, aestheticising perspective, but transformed by a playful and poetic approach.
The director’s “drunken” camera spares us nothing, as if seized by the spasms, jolts and hiccups of the bawlers that are its focus. The first appearance on screen of the men in this family dressed up as hookers at a local festival from the onset opens the door onto a world of transgression and excess, continually wavering between beauty and ugliness, sadness and humour. The Misfortunates is structured through these two feelings, taken to the extreme and with the boundary between them barely perceptible.
The film’s success lies precisely in its excess on all levels, making viewers’ flesh crawl rather than giving them goosebumps. From the scenes of binge drinking filmed in a nausea-inducing way, to sentimental outbursts before a televised concert by Roy Orbison (singer of Pretty Woman!) and the strong love between father and son, the uncompromising directorial style gives the film all its truthfulness and humanity. The fiendishly jerky editing, sudden flashbacks and images that are sometimes blurred, sometimes filtered by memories – all contribute to the aesthetic of excess that breathes unfading life, enthusiasm and energy into the film.
Although The Misfortunates is original in its realist representation of a certain Belgian identity, its fantasy and imaginativeness don’t detract from the real, but depict it in a way that reclaims it as a truly harsh and earthy poetic subject.
Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.