Baring more than soul
The new Flemish film by director Felix van Groeningen (called The Misfortunates in English) will open the 36th edition of the Flanders International Film Festival on 6 October, a splashy red carpet evening of movies, champagne and celeb spotting. Although the opening film is always chosen for its broad appeal to both a general audience and critics, this year the excitement is mounting a bit higher than usual. Helaasheid has everything: it’s a local production by a very exciting young director; it’s based on the uproariously popular 2006 novel by Flemish literature’s badboyDimitri Verhulst; it’s a mixture of humour, drama, tragedy and hope; it features an excellent cast of well-respected actors; and it is Flemish through and through. And there’s the bicycle race – a singular image that combines pure Flemish folk tale with the thrill of victory. Even we could not resist it.
Director Felix van Groeningen could also not resist the temptation to take what does not amount to more than a few lines in the novel and make it part of the story of four unemployed brothers who sleep all day, drink all night and, in between, half-heartedly raise a circumspect 13-year-old boy. Having read Flemish writer Dimitri Verhulst’s first few books, Van Groeningen knew he wanted to do something with De helaasheid der dingenbefore he even read it. “I bought it with the express purpose of making a film out of it,” he says. “And then half-way through I thought, no way, this is not possible.” Helaasheid is made up of anecdotal stories from Verhulst’s childhood with a drunken, violent father and three boorish uncles. With a very loose narrative structure, its power is in the language. Finally, Van Groeningen reached the page in the book where an adult Verhulst tells his senile grandmother, living in a nursing home, how much he appreciates how she took care of him. “I just started crying, and I thought, ok, I get it now,” says Van Groeningen. “This story is big enough to make a film.” Verhulst sold the director the rights to the story, “but it became a bit difficult, and I think he was sorry that he said ‘ok’ that fast,” admits Van Groeningen. With a difference in opinion about a key element of the film, Verhulst finally gave up and left the director to it. But Van Groeningen was a bit disappointed. “I wanted his approval, you know? But he just couldn’t do that.” However, Verhulst is happy with the final project, to everyone’s relief. Although the novelist sticks by his original opinion, he still “loves the movie and is proud of it,” says Van Groeningen. Helaasheid is a career-making movie, which is remarkable considering that the director is just 31 years old. It was obvious with his first film, 2004’s Steve + Sky, about a reforming thief who meets a young prostitute, that he was a talent to watch. Then two years ago, his Dagen zonder lief (With Friends Like These) charmed the critics again, with its story of youthful angst set in Sint-Niklaas. But it’sHelaasheid that was accepted at five international festivals, including Toronto and Cannes, where it screened as part of the Directors’ Fortnight and received a Special Mention in the Art Cinema Award category. It is the Belgian entry to be considered for an Academy Award nomination, and it is poised to be one of the most popular films in Flemish history. Although it would be optimistic to say that it will meet the million tickets sales of last year’s crime-thriller Loft, it certainly deserves to knock that film off its record-breaking pedestal. Van Groeningen is one of very few directors making first-rate films about young people in Flanders. “I’m interested in social environments and in the tone and style of films. That’s what drives me,” he says. In the meantime, he’s riding high in the weeks that lead up to his film’s release – and from the publicity stunt at Cannes earlier this year when he and the cast of Helaasheid rode naked on bicycles. Although he wasn’t really looking forward to it, “I loved it!” he enthuses. “I got such a kick out of it. It was really liberating.”
It’s a typical grey afternoon in the fictional Reetverdegem, a tiny town outside of Aalst in East Flanders, when a man arrives to repossess the television. It seems that Uncle Breejen has amassed quite the gambling debt. The four unemployed brothers of the house beg the official to reconsider. Take something else, anything else! He looks around at the broken-down furniture, holes in the wall and hairy, unkempt men. He takes the TV. Meet the Strobbe brothers. Potrel gets into a lot of fights. Breejen drinks himself into a coma (in addition to the gambling). Koen crawls around under tables to look up women’s skirts (and he also drinks himself into a coma). Celle, well, Celle just drinks, period. But Celle has good reason to try to avoid getting into all this trouble: he has a 13-year-old son. And this is the tragic centre of De helaasheid der dingen, the new film by Flemish director Felix van Groeningen, based on the autobiographical novel by Dimitri Verhulst. Celle wants to be good. But he simply isn’t capable of it. Fortunately, the (surprisingly) sensitive boy, Gunther, has a grandmother (Gilda De Bal), who looks after his basic needs, as she does all four of her useless grown sons. She has, after all “a heart bigger than her pension.” Helaasheid is full of such wonderfully rich narration and dialogue, some of it taken directly from Verhulst’s book of the same name. Keeping the autobiographical nature of the book intact, the film goes back and forth between Gunther’s childhood and his adult self, struggling with the demons of his past. Van Groeningen superbly juggles it all, blending the comic elements of the novel with its stark reality, much like in his first two films, Steve + Sky and Dagen zonder lief (With Friends Like These). Wouter Hendrickx from the TV drama Witse is a stand-out as the youngest brother Potrel, who beds girls, shoots pigeons and picks on his family with unpredictable menace. Johan Heldenbergh, so excellent in Aanrijding in Moscou, is Breejen, sporting the giant handlebar moustache he grew for his current stage show The Broken Circle Breakdown. Though you wouldn’t necessarily want to find yourself in their company, the brothers do at one point prove that, when the chips are down, taking care of Gunther is a primal instinct. But it’s Koen De Graeve as Celle and Kenneth Vanbaaeden as Gunther who steal the show. De Graeve seems to have been working his way up to this part, drinking his way through moviesDagen zonder lief, Los and Loft. This is easily his best role: a good-old-boy drunk, occasionally swallowed alive by his own self-hating rage. Vanbaaeden makes Gunther thoughtful, while avoiding making him seem like a victim – useful when Gunther is eventually forced to face the decision of whether he will head down the same road as his family or an altogether different one. “Everything beautiful has to leave our town,” Gunther says silently to himself as a boy. Indeed.