Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5
Original Title: Toto le héros
Belgium/France/Germany, 1991. Iblis Films, Metropolis Filmproduction, Philippe Dussart, Canal+, Centre du Cinéma et de l’Audiovisuel de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, France 3 Cinema, Het Ministerie van Cultuur van de Vlaamse Gemeenschap, Les Entrepeneurs de L’Audiovisuel Europeen, MEDIA Programme of the European Union, Radio Television Belge Francophone, Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen. Screenplay by Jaco Van Dormael, in collaboration with Didier De Neck, Pascal Lonhay, Laurette Vankeerberghen. Cinematography by Walther van den Ende. Produced by Dany Geys, Luciano Gloor. Music by Pierre van Dormael. Production Design by Hubert Pouille. Costume Design by An D’Huys, Anne Van Brée. Film Editing by Susana Rossberg.
Thomas (Michel Bouquet) is an old man in a senior home who is sneaking cigarettes and reflecting on his entire life, resolving to bust out and kill his rival Alfred, the man he believes stole his life from him. Thomas tells us that on the day they were both born, there was a fire in the hospital and he and Alfred were mixed up while the nurses were rescuing babies from the neonatal ward, one growing up the son of a pilot and an overdrawn, exasperated mother, the other placed in the home of a wealthy grocer, and who grows up to be the class bully. As we track through his childhood and eventually catch up with him as an adult, we learn that Alfred is responsible for many losses in Thomas’s life, including two deaths in the family, the destruction of his romantic love for his sister (which is childlike and innocent but whose incestuous overtones director Jaco Van Dormael does not mute) and the disaster of a relationship with a woman that he falls in love with as an adult (with Jo De Backer‘s voice awkwardly dubbed by Bouquet in his sequences as the character). The dream sequences we witness, in which Thomas imagines himself a super sleuth who is getting revenge on everyone who hurt him, make us wonder if perhaps our narrator isn’t as reliable as he at first tried to convince us: is Alfred actually the reason why things keep going wrong, or is Thomas searching for order in a chaotic universe and needs to let go of his own regrets about the things he ruined for himself?
Von Dormael’s directorial debut won the Camera D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for its dazzling camerawork and smooth, kaleidoscopic editing, though decades later much of its innovation has worn off. The director investigates themes of selfhood and responsibility that he would later transfer to science-fiction in the similarly themed (and much less successful) English-language film Mr. Nobody, with ideas all in perfect order but treated in a shallow manner, focusing on aesthetics with very little substance to them. We’re taken on a ride through memory and experience but we’re not given much to feel about either, the ending is a clever twist on Thomas’s plan to do away with his old rival but doesn’t quite show off any acquisition of wisdom in the process.
European Film Awards: Best European Actor (Jaco Van Dormael); Best European Screenwriter; Best European Cinematographer
Nomination: Best Supporting Actress (Sandrine Blancke)
Toronto International Film Festival: 1991