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Monday, 21 May 2012

Toto the Hero - Movie Review

Toto the Hero is an excellent 1991 Belgian movie about the lives of Thomas, Alice (his sister), and Alfred (a neighbour).   It happens to have a minor character in it who has Down's Syndrome, but that is not the reason I want to recommend this fine film. It is a tragic but heartwarming tale of love, jealousy, murder, arson, incest, and shoplifting.

Toto the Hero - Downs Syndrome
A world cinema classic.  No bull.
For many years (ever since enjoying the little-remembered French rom-com Romauld et Juliet at the Glastonbury festival) I have been an advocate of foreign language movies.  I am not saying that all foreign language movies are better than all movies in English, but I have been known to argue that if you are going to watch 50 movies made in any given year, then rather than choosing the top 50 movies in English you would be better off watching the best 40 movies from English-speaking countries, plus the best 10 movies from around the rest of the world.  In recent years this philosophy has led me to some excellent movie experiences like Koyla, The Orphanage, Hidden, and Let the Right One In. However, it has also backfired spectacularly many times, and I have found myself enduring art films that seem to be designed to annoy the viewer, such as Uzak, The Death of Mr Lazarescu, 2046, and The Science of Sleep (during which, with pleasing irony, I fell asleep).  Toto the Hero however, belongs firmly in the former category.  It is one of my favourite ever foreign language movies.

(SPOILER ALERT - this is the complete plot - please skip this section if you have not seen the movie) 
Toto the Hero begins with an elderly man named Thomas Van Hazebrouck (who nicknames himself Toto) looking back on his life with bitterness and regret.  We see his life story in flashback.

Toto the Hero - Alice and Thomas
Brotherly love
Thomas believes he was switched as a baby with another boy Alfred Kant (although the movie offers no evidence, and suggests it was just a fantasy).  Thomas is jealous of Alfred, who is a stronger and more confident boy, with rich parents, and is something of a bully. Thomas also appears to have a crush on Alice, his own sister (perhaps because of implications of the baby switching fantasy, or perhaps the crush came first and the fantasy followed as a necessity).  When Alfred starts to make advances on Alice, Thomas is horrified.  Thomas persuades Alice to prove she is not in love with Alfred by burning his house down, but something goes wrong and Alice is killed in the blaze.

Toto the Hero
Frown Syndrome
Years later, as a young adult, Thomas meets a young woman Evelyne, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Alice, even down to her dress sense and mannerisms.Although he knows he is only attracted to her because she reminds him of his sister, and even though she is married to someone else. he seduces her.  As they plan to run away together, he discovers the identity of her husband - it is Alfred.   It is revealed that in fact, Alfred was totally obsessed with Thomas's sister, and in later life he chose a wife who reminded him of her, and furthermore, persuaded her to dress like Alice did too. Overwhelmed by the revelation, Thomas abandons Evelyne, and leaves town.

Who says nothing interesting ever happens in Belgium?
As an old man, Thomas finally decides to get revenge on Alfred, and tracks him down with the intention of killing him.  However, the pair talk, and realize they are not enemies after all.  Alfred reveals he was always jealous of Thomas's simple  family life. When Thomas discovers that Alfred is heavily in debt, and is being targeted by gangsters, he decides to finally take back the identity that he believes was stolen from him - he impersonates Alfred, and takes the bullet that was intended for his old nemesis.

Steve's Review
Toto the Hero is European in the best way - a tale of passion and tragedy told in a stylish and funny way that I cannot imagine seeing in an English language movie - it is a joy to watch. 

Toto the Hero
Say "fromage"
The story drifts into fantasy every now and then, in a way that could be annoying if handled badly, but isn't. Alfred is an unreliable narrator, and we can never be sure which bits of the story are real, and which bits are misremembered or made up.  I don't know about you, but my memories are like that, so it makes sense to me that movies can be like that too.

The dreamlike quality of the earlier memories is reinforced by the way those scenes are filmed - they are colourful and vibrant, suggesting nostalgia, and they contrast with the drab colour palate of old man Thomas's scenes. The lighting and camera angles are also used cleverly to define the time period.

So what are we to make of the character of Thomas? Do we like him?  I suppose we do - despite the fact he is jealous and bitter, a liar and a thief, full of incestuous lust, and the worst joke teller ("Ask me what time it is") in Belgium, which is really saying something.  I think he is just confused - as a child he is vulnerable and overwhelmed by his emotions, and as an adult, filled with grief and guilt. 

In any case, you have to love a movies with dancing tulips.

Toto the hero - Jaco Van Dormael, Sandrine Blancke, Thomas Godet
Jaco, Sandrine, and Thomas in 2006
  • Director Jaco Van Dormael used to be a circus clown. He has only made two other movies apart from Toto the Hero: Mr Nobody (another love story with threads spanning different time periods, starring Jared Leto of the band "30 Seconds to Mars."), and The Eighth Day (more on which later).  His movies have themes about disabilities because complications during his own birth had raised the possibility that he was mentally impaired himself.
  • Thomas Godet (young Thomas) never appeared in another movie.  However, Sandrine Blancke (Alice) continues to act.  Aside from Toto, her biggest success has been 2009's Soeur Sourire.  
  • Toto the Hero won the Caméra d'Or (best first feature film) at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival.

Bloody shoplifter

Main Cast
Michel Bouquet     - Thomas, as an old man
Jo De Backer     - Thomas, as an adult
Thomas Godet     - Thomas, as a child
Mireille Perrier - Evelyne as young woman
Sandrine Blancke - Alice
Fabienne Loriaux - Thomas' Mother
Klaus Schindler  - Thomas' Father
Pascal Duquenne  - Celestin, as an adult
Karim Moussati      - Celestin, as a child 

Pascal Duquenne
The character of Celestin, Thomas's brother aho has Down's Syndrome, is written perfectly.  Celestin is funny, loving, and clearly loved - but the film makers do not over play their hand, and it never becomes patronising.

Pascal is the actor who played Celiste as an adult. For me, his performance in this movie is thoroughly convincing.  He really makes Celiste seem like a fun person to have as a brother.

Pascal has also starred in a few other movies, including  Jaco Van Dormael's Palme d'Or nominated The Eighth Day. This also starred Daniel Auteuil (a famous French actor, star of Jean de Florette, Manon des Sources, and, coincidentally Hidden, and Romuald et Juliette, mentioned earlier) and in in 1996 Pascal and Daniel were jointly awarded the Best Actor award at Cannes.  The Eighth Day is a sort of "Rain Man with Down's Syndrome".  I stumbled across it on TV shortly after my own son was diagnosed with Down's Syndrome and decided to watch it.  I wish I hadn't.  Although Daniel Auteuil's character (much like Tom Cruise's) grows as a person during the movie, poor Pascal's suffers, and I found the ending to his story hard to take.   I thought the ending was totally misjudged and I think (at least I hope) it was totally unrealistic.  I seem to be in the minority though, as it seems to be loved by film buffs everywhere. The one thing I did take from the experience though, is that it is a great thing that Pascal is out there, being a movie star.

Whoops, sorry, wrong movie

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