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Felix van Groeningen
NeoClassics Films / Synergetic Distribution
Format: DVD
Release Date: September 28, 2010
By Robert Stribley August 11, 2011

“Any similarities between certain characters in this book and real people is due entirely to insight into human nature” – Gunther Strobbe

With that disclaimer hovering before us, so begins The Misfortunates, the 2009 film from Belgian director Felix van Groeningen, his third feature. Van Groeningen adapted his film from the apparently semi-autobiographical novel De helaasheid der dingen by Belgian writer Dimitri Verhulst. Often bleak, sometimes bleakly funny, the narrative chiefly concerns the family of heavy-drinking, cross-dressing, crude-talking, Roy Orbison-loving, naked bike-riding Strobbe brothers (Beefcake, Petrol, Koen, and Marcel) and their impact upon one boy, Marcel’s son. That son turns out to be Gunther Strobbe, the author whose disclaimer opens the movie, the gangly, tow-headed kid having turned into a slender, brooding artist.

The film opens with a repo man coming to take the Strobbe family TV. The only greater indignity would be if he had taken their stash of booze. The brothers act out, immediately resorting to (somewhat comedic) violence, but it’s their long-suffering mother who will lose her only form of entertainment.

And so begins the chaotic story of the Strobbes. In short, the theme of this tale is that of  the sins of the father being visited upon the son. For Gunther may be more intelligent than his father, but he’s not spared the same stupid mistakes. Just like his father, he accidentally gets his girlfriend pregnant. He’s cold, emotionally remote from woman. His father allows him to get drunk and berates his mother before him in the harshest of terms. It’s not difficult to imagine Gunther growing up disdainful of women. Yet, he also maintains an irrational love for his father. At first.

The scenes from Gunther’s earlier life are bleached out. The blown-out color surely representing their blown out lives in a blown out decade, the 1980s. Witihin that landscape, The Misfortunates offers something to offend quite a few folks, including copious underage drinking and hairy male nudity. The Strobbes are a train wreck of a family with few boundaries and nary a role model in sight. And that’s largely the point.

The young and older Gunther are both played convincingly by Kenneth Vanbaeden and Valentijn Dhaenens, respectively. His father and brothers are all played wincingly, comedically, forming a believable gang of incompetents. Gunther’s father is Koen De Graeve, who disappears into the role, portraying Marcel at three distinct emotional and physical points in his life. Marcel isn’t a complete monster, not always anyway. Rather he’s a man-child, a father, biologically, with the mind of a 12 year old boy. His solutions to life’s hurdles typically involve alcohol and violence.

Having escaped this environment, as an adult and a struggling writer, Gunther delivers pizza, answers phones, and pushes a drink cart on a train to make money. (Trains tell us about a country most honestly, he points out, poetically.) It’s ironic, then, at first, that in pursuing his more intellectual path, Gunther still ends up doing the same sort of menial labor his father, the town postman, did. He makes for an angry adult and he confesses to hating two people: his mother and the mother of his own child – the latter perhaps for fear of putting him in the role of raising a child and making the same mistakes his father did. So, too, he seldom returns to his village, the fictional town of Reetveerdegem. But when he does, it’s to join his remaining uncles in their traditional drunken, cross-dressing shenanigans.

“Beautiful things got destroyed or left our village,” Gunther says. Perhaps, it’s with this realization that he finally begins to change. “5 novels later,” we see on the screen a few minutes before the story’s ending. Now, Gunther is comforting his apparently senile grandmother, telling her he’s thankful for her protection, that he’s found the love of his life. He understands that this woman, who if too permissive, was never deserving of the indignities her children heaped upon her. It wasn’t the men who saved him, the women who abandoned him. It was always the other way around.

Then the story closes, with Gunther patiently, gently teaching his own son how to ride a bike. It’s a lovely, idyllic scene. But how did he get here? Five novels later? And what in between? The transformation from callous misogynist to caring father and grandson comes a little too easily. Did his wife leave him, take the boy with her? That’d be a realistic catalyst for change. If the story truly is autobiographical, something happened, even if it were a long, slow turning to the light. There are hints of that process here: Gunther asks to go to boarding school as kid, much to his father’s dismay, where he does better as a student and discovers his flair for writing. And later we learn he may have called in child services to protect himself. These moments are telling, certainly, but only go part way in explaining what changed Gunther from a remote, reluctant father into a more sophisticated, empathetic human being over the course of five novels. More such moments would be compelling to balance the admittedly entertaining portrayal of the bizarre, brutal hothouse he grew up within. That said, it’s to van Groeningen’s credit that he depicts this family so vividly, with heavy lashings of humor and nary a misplaced whit of sentiment. In the end, the Strobbe clan may be safer to watch from a distance than up close, but they’re nonetheless unforgettable for it.

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