Friday, April 20, 2012

Jaco Van Dormael | Toto le Heros (Toto the Hero)

boom: exploding life
by Douglas Messerli

Didier De Neck, Pascal Lonhay, Jaco Van Dormael, and Laurette Vankeerberghen (writers), Jaco Van Dormael (director) Toto le Héros (Toto the Hero) / 1991, USA 1992

An elderly man, Thomas Van Hazebrouck (Michel Bouqet as the old man), locked away in what appears to be a state-run old age facility, plots the death of Alfred Kant (Peter Böhlke), born the same day as Thomas, who—at least in Thomas’ unreliable memory—was exchanged by Kant’s mother during a hospital fire. Alfred, accordingly, who grew up as the son of a wealthy grocery-chain owner, is, in Thomas’ childhood mind, living a life he should have lived, while he must endure life next door, as the son of a poorer couple. What is unsaid, although made clear in Alfred’s taunts of Thomas (he calls him Van Campellsoup), is that in this French-speaking part of Belgium, the Van Hazebrouck’s are of Flemish background, while the Kant’s are wealthy Walloons.

     Moving fluidly back and forth in time and space, Van Dormael’s film portrays Thomas’ life, which, in fact, is a joyful one. The young Thomas’ father (Klaus Schindler) is a dashing pilot, who loves his children, Thomas (Thomas Godet as the child), his elder sister Alice (Sandrine Blancke) and the younger, retarded brother, Celestin (Karim Moussati), entertaining them with magic tricks and the wonderful theme song of the film, “Boum” (“Boom”) with its delightful nonsense lyrics. Thomas’ mother and father are passionately in love and the home seems an utterly pleasant one, while it is clear that the Kant home is less harmonious, particularly given the son’s bullying postures.

      Despite these facts, however, Thomas remains jealous of Alfred and his life, missing out of the pleasures of his own loving household. Since he is convinced that he is a changeling, moreover, Thomas falls in love with his vivacious sister, imagining a life with her as his lover and wife. Later, however, when he discovers that Alice is secretly meeting with Alfred, even that imaginary aspect of his life is taken from him.

     Other events associated with the Kants further grab up elements of his life. Asked by Mr. Kant to undertake a dangerous air trip to bring back bonbons for his grocery stores, Thomas’s father crashes into the sea, his whereabouts unknown to the family. Bitterness—again directed at the Kants—consumes both Thomas’ and Alice’s imaginations, which ends in the two destroying the statue of the Virgin Mary to which they have been praying.

     When Thomas’ mother leaves to check out a plane authorities have found near Dover, Thomas and Alice live for a few days in a kind of enchanted fantasy, but when Thomas grows angry over his discovery that his sister is consorting with the boy whom he perceives as the enemy, Alice determines to prove her love for Thomas by burning down the Kant house. She is killed in an explosion of the gasoline can she has dragged into their garage.

     Much of the old man’s memories—again played out in disconnective snippets and repeated images from the future and past—are of Thomas as a young adult (Jo De Backer), working, it is clear, in a bureaucratic office where the only actions we observe him accomplishing is sharpening pencils. With the report of his mother’s death, whom he has apparently not visited for several years, Thomas with an older Celestin (Pascal Duquenne) attends the funeral and takes time off from his job. At a soccer match, Thomas sees a woman who reminds him of Alice, attempting to find her again in the crowd. Later, he observes a woman in a pawn shop purchasing a trumpet (the instrument played by his sister) and he follows her, accosting her outside of her home, the old Kant house. Despite her discomfort with his stalking, she, Evelyne (Mireille Perrier) agrees to meet him between rehearsals (she evidently plays with an orchestra). A whirlwind love relationship ensues, ending with her decision to leave her husband. But when she does not immediately show up for their rendezvous, Thomas drives to the house, only to encounter the grieving husband, Alfred Kant himself. There he also uncovers a silk flower, just like one that Alice has created previously for him.

     The visit ends in his complete breakdown as he takes a train away from his home village. Was the woman actually Alice, or a woman who was so similar to Alice that both men were equally attracted to her? Although the one possibility might actually involve incest, for Thomas it hardly matters; the paramount issue is that once again Alfred has stolen an important part of his life from him. And she will now always be Alfred’s Evelyne, a kind of passed down trophy.

     What happens for the rest of Thomas’ life also matters little. As Thomas admits early in the film, he and his life have been nothing but a kind a “sound and fury, signifying nothing” Consumed by jealousy Thomas has done “nothing” and taken no joy in the pleasures proffered him. He hates old people, he claims, by way of saying he hates himself.

     Hearing the news that Alfred’s plans to close his grocery stores has resulted in an attempt upon his life, Thomas plots an escape from his old age home: the deed, he insists, is his by rights. He will kill Alfred, just as he had all his life plotted the heroic events of his imaginary self, Toto, a kind of film noir G-man who saves the day.

   Waiting in the reconstructed garage, Thomas’ mind moves in and out of dreams, encompassing others and himself on the prowl for Alfred, who does not show up. On the following day, when Alfred appears to have returned, Thomas pays him a visit, beginning with a playful “bang,” a murder of the imagination. Invited in, Thomas observes a man even more decrepit that he is, a man who time has destroyed. Alfred admits to unhappiness, expressing his envy of Thomas’ life, a life in which Thomas, so it appeared to him, had the freedom to do anything.

    But, of course, Thomas has chosen to do nothing, not even to run away with the love of his life, Evelyne-Alice. Alfred says that he still sees her from time to time and tells Thomas that she still thinks of him. The two, Thomas and Evelyne, now an elderly lady (Gisela Uhien) meet, touchingly kissing before she is called away by her current husband. Once again time has stolen everything from the would-be hero.

    Hitching a ride into a distant field, Thomas takes out his gun, prepared to kill himself. But suddenly he tosses it away, returning to Alfred’s home, locking up his nemesis in one of the rooms. Dressing in Alfred’s suit, wearing his cologne, Thomas drives temporarily away and returns. The assassins have reappeared, awaiting outside the house. They telephone, and Thomas as Alfred answers it, whereupon shots ring out. The scene we have been shown of Alfred’s death time and again throughout this film, we suddenly realize, is Thomas’ death—his life gone somewhat comically into the “boom” of his childhood song.

     Taking back “his” life, Thomas has finally become a kind of hero, accepting Alfred’s fate as his own and, in so doing, saving Alfred from certain annihilation. In this act, perhaps the first “act” of Thomas’ life, he has finally become someone, a man who has accomplished something, even if a slightly tragic event.

      If Van Dormael’s film, the way I describe it, seems to be a solemn meditation on what it is to live life, however, I assure the reader that it is not. Van Dormael’s first, and most endearing film to date, may end with a kind of a self-destructive, suicidal act, but it is a delightfully joyful experience, a kind a dark comic rondo throughout. It is only too bad that the hero has not been able to understand his life story for what it was.
Los Angeles, March 19, 2012