The Misfortunates

De hellasheid der dingen

4 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: March 19, 2010
Reviewed for the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival
It’s a Miserable Life

Felix van Groeningen’s gritty study of the Strobbe family is—in many ways—compelling, but decidedly lacks the prime component of action-based-on-good-intention in this Flemish version of John Steinbeck’s similarly drunken tales of Mac and the boys (Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday).

Four brothers, Marcel (Koen de Graeve, impressively sodden), Lowie (Wouter Hendrickx’s subtle humanity provides just the right touch of contrast to his older-not-wiser siblings), Pieter (Johan Heldenbergh adds much to the bawdy mayhem) and Koen (cheers to Bert Haelvoet as he merrily brings honour to the clan in an incredible display of drunkenness for the ages) have all moved back home due to economic stresses of various types. Their father drank himself into an early grave leaving their long-suffering mother (Gilda de Pal gives an award-winning performance as the stoic matriarch: her last, silent scenes overflow with incredibly honest and wordless emotion) to cope with the beer-addicted boys. Rounding out the household is Marcel’s son, Gunther, who is the focus of the narrative.

Young Gunther (Kenneth Vanbaedan displays a fine range of acting skills) tries to endure his family’s sorry reputation and keep out of the principal’s office at school. His frequent punishments are not the strap or after-class detention but due-next-day writing assignments that unwittingly serve to unlock the thirteen-year-old’s emerging passion for language.

Gunter-at-27 (the challenging role of rejected-writer/unwilling-father is in the capable domain of Valentijn Dhaenens whose chilling screams of anguish are deftly balanced with a whispered retirement-home recitation of “The Pussy Song”).

The flash-forward-and-back storytelling technique is creatively enhanced by Ruben Impens’ beautifully varied cinematography (from handheld close-ups that are as teetering as the unstoppable guzzlers to the carefully selected moments when the aftermath of those colourful antics slip tellingly into glorious black-and-white) and a score that is at one with the copious helpings of unbridled revelry (a naked bike ride where the “details” are mercifully brief) to abject despair (imagine being forced to compare your penis with your besotted dad’s to confirm your blood line).

Composer Jef Neve utilizes the raw delivery of town-band instrumentation (including a wheezing squeeze box, melodic low brass and a pair of father-and-son clarinets), pensive strings for the difficult revelations and a solo piano that is the ideal embodiment of a writer’s solitude. A capella voices from the distant past are also added to the aural mix. What better than Miserere finding the ear, even as the screen is awash in self-induced calamity.

On a couple of occasions, the production slips into an extraordinary realm when the poet-writer’s imagery is read aloud, speaking deeply about life as viewed from a train dashing through impoverished habitations along both sides of the tracks and the notion of handing off life as if in a relay race. More moments such as those would lift the overall artistic value considerably, but the booze-fuelled activities of the miserable men—unintentionally reinforcing the desperate life of Gunter—trump the power of expertly crafted words, which, next morning, no one would remember anyway. JWR

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