Calling the Strobbe clan a working-class family would imply that some of its members worked (or had class), but none of the lowlife protags do in the visually robust and often hilarious Flemish tragicomedy “The Misfortunates.” Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Dimitri Verhulst, pic offers young helmer Felix van Groeningen (“Steve + Sky”) a solid base — and plenty of lowest-common-denominator humor — from which to spin another ravishing-looking tale of the ordinary lives of extraordinary Belgians. Flemish and foreign interest should follow a similar trajectory to those of other recent local successes such as “Moscow, Belgium” and “Eldorado.”
Helmer was the perfect choice to adapt Verhulst’s bestseller, as both the book and van Groeningen’s earlier work successfully combined a high level of artistry — and, to an extent, artifice — with an exploration of everyday, almost banal subjects. However, the helmer’s previous films had a slight tendency to ramble, which is curbed here by the underlying thematic connective tissue of Verhulst’s novel.
Few subjects could be more banal than the small-town Strubbe clan. Mother Strubbe (Gilda De Bal), whose “heart is bigger than her pension,” has four good-for-nothing adult sons (Koen De Graeve, Wouter Hendrickx, Johan Heldenbergh, Bert Haelvoet) who have all moved back in with her because of money troubles. They spend the day getting drunk, eating raw sausages and singing vulgar songs.
Looking to grow up amid the fumes, vomit and stench of stale beer is 13-year-old Gunther (Kenneth Vanbaeden), the son of Marcel (De Graeve). As in the novel, this narrator is more of an observer than an active participant as he tries to discover what being family means — even if his relatives make the Beverly Hillbillies look well-adjusted.
Triggering this search is a crisis in the boy’s life some 14 years on, when Gunther, now an aspiring novelist (Valentijn Dhaenens), is about to become a father himself. Pic slides smoothly between the late ’80s and early 2000s, and the narrative jumble is nimbly edited by Nico Leunen.
Van Groeningen uses an anecdotal, vignettish approach that underlines Gunther’s search for connecting themes, rather than a desire to paint psychologically refined portraits of characters who are anything but. The director also applies this to the visuals, which effortlessly mix a variety of styles, suggesting the effects of hindsight and memory.
Ace d.p. Ruben Impens fully exploits the possibilities of his Red One digital camera, evoking everything from saturated film stock to playful black-and-white to crystalline contempo lensing.
Like the novel, “The Misfortunates” starts out as an extremely lowbrow comedy (highlights include several variations on beer-drinking contests) but morphs into a bittersweet meditation on whether familial love and pride are enough to sustain a proper upbringing.
Thesping is appropriately brawny, with De Graeve’s loose-canon father emotionally anchoring the picture; only legit vet De Bal seems out of her depth. Production and costume design are spot-on, and Jef Neve’s score nicely enhances the various moods.
Pic’s international moniker replaces the equally awkward earlier translation “The Alasness of Things,” which was a closer approximation of the novel’s original title.