Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Belgian Mullets: The Misfortunates

Gunther Strobbe might not live in the most picturesque village in Belgium, but there is plenty of beer. It will not go to waste. While Strobbe’s father and uncles are quite impressive when it comes to putting away the adult beverages, they are far less accomplished at holding down jobs and steady relationships. As a result, the future novelist’s formative years are understandably chaotic in Felix Van Groeningen’s The Misfortunates (trailer here), Belgium’s official candidate for the 2009 best foreign language Oscar, opening this Friday in New York.

When you have a family like this, you have to become a writer. However, as thirtysomething Gunther mines his childhood for material, the rejection letters pile up. As his flashbacks unfold, we come to understand he still has emotional issues rooted in his formative years.

Gunther’s mother turned her back on him when she walked out on his alcoholic father Marcel (or ‘Celle for short). They live in squalor with his three hard-drinking, Roy Orbison loving uncles, and his grandmother, who is the family’s sole breadwinner and stabilizing influence. On a typical day, young Gunther brings his father some hair of the dog to stave off the DTs in the morning, makes the long commute to and from school, and tries to sleep through his youngest uncle’s hook-ups at night, even though they share a room.

Still, there are special occasions for the Strobbes that are certainly cinematic, like the bare-naked bicycle race his uncles enter with appropriate gusto and the town’s annual three day cross-dressing revelry. It is hard to imagine why Gunther’s grades and social skills are suffering, given this sheltering environment.

Misfortunates tries to mix equal parts drama and comedy in one big self-consciously quirky package. Although the tone varies widely, there are several memorably drawn scenes. Indeed, the sum of the film’s parts may well be greater than its whole.

Not a bad young actor, Kenneth Vanbaeden is reasonably engaging as young Strobbe. Though he initially seems inexpressively wooden, Valentijn Dhaenens nicely conveys the grown-up novelist’s conflicting feelings regarding his family. The most energetic performance though, easily comes from Johan Heldenbergh as Gunther’s lunatic uncle Breejen.

It is odd how dingy and depressed Belgium looks in so many of the country’s recent cinematic exports, including the Dardenne Brothers’ Lorna’s Silence, Bouli Lanners’s Eldorado, and Christophe van Rompaey’s Moscow, Belgium. Misfortunates certainly follows in that tradition, scrupulously recreating the grimy grayness of the Strobbes’ working class community. Still, Van Groeningen tempers naturalistic ambiance with some hard-earned sentimentality.

While it usually is not very pretty to look at, Van Groeningen finds some new twists on the familiar eccentric family comedy-drama. Misfortunates is a modest film, but it has its moments. It opens this Friday (4/9) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine and the Clearview 62nd & 1st.