The Misfortunates Felix Van Groeningen

The Misfortunates Felix Van Groeningen
Originally titled La Merditude des Choses (The Shit-itude of Things), Belgian director Felix van Groeningen's awkwardly translated The Misfortunates is less a tale of titular misfortune than it is a coming-of-age tale of a boy looking to escape from a familial small town cycle of failure and learned helplessness. Art as an extension of personal signifiers amassed by experience and hardship through ego and learned behaviour and suffrage frames this parable, but the bulk of this tonally vague enterprise follows reactive 13-year-old cipher Gunther Strobbe (Kenneth Vanbaeden). Living with his single alcoholic father, three uncles and grandmother in a perpetually soiled home with an outdoor toilet sans door, he observes his family quietly, understanding their caring modes of dysfunction while realizing their external image as trashy town fuck-ups. Their chaotic quotidian jumps from nude bicycle race to town drinking contest at the drop of a hat, pausing only to teach a tween niece "The Pussy Song" at the local pub. It's all a bit of irreverent, unorthodox fun, interrupted by bouts of drunken abuse, wherein Gunther's father acts out violently, calling the boy's mother a slut, hitting him and stripping him nude to compare penises. Steady camerawork and generalized angst in the present with a stoic, seemingly tortured adult Gunther suggest this has all taken a toll, but in the shaky, exuberant flashbacks a sense of implicit love permeates even the most horrific moment of hedonistic, id impulse abandon. This dual tonality suggests directorial intention, acknowledging smartly that an abusive environment isn't necessarily all gloom, doom and Radio Flyer from within, capturing that moment in life when a child starts to see the adult world as flawed with impressive sagacity. It does hinder audience empathy in the third act, having such a carnival-esque childhood juxtaposed and never removed from a presumably touching and cathartic present, but this is more a testament to contrivance refusal than flaw. Regardless of any structural peculiarities, there is a propulsive, magnetic force that keeps this story of making amends with the past invigorating, compelling viewing. An interview with van Groeningen and a "Making of" are included with the DVD, but are in French-only. (Evokative)