The Misfortunates

Movie Review: The glass is half-full in Belgium's 'The Misfortunates'

Kenneth Vanbaeden and Koen De Graeve have one of their memorable father-son moments in "The Misfortunates."
Kenneth Vanbaeden and Koen De Graeve have one of their memorable father-son moments in "The Misfortunates." (Neoclassics Films)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010

In the Belgian family dramedy "The Misfortunates," Father definitely doesn't know best.

Based on Dmitri Verhulst's semi-autobiographical 2006 novel, the movie is an object lesson in how not to raise a kid. Don't beat him, don't feed him beer (at least not at the age of 14, and not unless you want him to turn into an alcoholic like you) and -- dear God, man -- don't make him clean up your own post-bender puke and call in sick for you. That's just sad.

Somehow, the movie by Felix Van Groeningen makes it all seem kind of, well, funny.

You know how when awful things happen, you say to yourself, "Someday I'll look back on all this and laugh"? For Gunther Strobbe, that day has arrived.

Narrated as a kind of tragicomic memoir by Gunther (Valentijn Dhaenens), a 30-ish aspiring writer, the story takes place mostly during our hero's turbulent teenage years. Flashbacks take us between the adult narrator and his teenage self (Kenneth Vanbaeden), growing up with his dissolute, divorced father Celle (Koen De Graeve) and Celle's three crazy brothers (Wouter Hendrickx, Johan Heldenbergh and Bert Haelvoet). All four have moved back in with their elderly mother (Gilda De Bal) after various life failures.

It's never clear exactly what era these flashbacks are taking place in, but judging by the mullets several of them sport, I'd say the 1970s.

Gunther's reminiscences of his family center on a string of drinking binges, drunken rages, sexual encounters and such annual local shenanigans as a naked bicycle race and drag festival. A mere eight years older than Gunther, Uncle Petrol regularly brings his girlfriends into the bedroom he and Gunther share. Celle makes frequent references to Gunther's mother, who has left them for another man, as a "filthy whore," and insists that his son show him his penis as proof that it resembles his own when, in an fit of alcohol-induced jealousy, Celle begins to doubt that Gunther is really his biological son.

Good times.

Believe it or not, while they're terrible role models, Celle and his brothers have a kind of goofy sweetness. They all love Roy Orbison, for example, raucously singing along to a TV appearance. I know, small comfort, but such touches prevent them from becoming the monsters that, in any other movie, they would be. And young Gunther at first seems to enjoy the fact that, on an emotional level at least, the men are closer to playmates than authority figures.

Still, even he eventually has enough, taking action to escape the household turmoil.

By that time, the fun and games are over, even if the movie isn't. Van Groeningen's film is about something deeper than a dysfunctional family. The adult Gunther is kind of a mess, struggling with literary rejection, dead-end jobs and a pregnant girlfriend he hates. (The title of the original novel translates to something closer to "The Crappiness of Things.")

His salvation, which comes with the publication of his first book, carries a message about suffering and art. An appalling childhood may risk making you an unhappy person when you grow up, but it almost guarantees a great yarn.

*** Unrated. At the Avalon. Contains pervasive obscenity, smoking and drinking, as well as scenes of nudity, sex, child abuse, drunken vomiting and filthy, overflowing toilets. In Flemish with subtitles. 108 minutes.

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