Dir. Felix van Groeningen. Belgium/France, 2009. 108 min.
A literal English translation of the title might better prepare the audience for La Merditude Des Choses. Adapted from the highly successful autobiographical novel by Dimitri Verhulst, this scatological coming of age story is told through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy growing up in a small village with his father and three uncles, all of them large, drunken, incorrigible louts. It mixes rambunctious, intentionally vulgar humour with a pinch of pathos and plenty of cynicism. The result is something which will probably go down well in Northern Europe but could suffer as it moves down towards the sun.
Taking place in two parallel time frames, it tells the disturbing story of Gunther Strobbe (played as a boy by Kenneth Vanbaeden and as an adult by Valentijn Dhaenens). An unwanted son who grows up to become an unwilling father, Gunther is first seen at 13, trying to do his homework in a pub while his dad Cel (De Graeve), ostensibly the village postman, drinks himself into a stupor with his brothers. Later Gunther is revealed in the present day, aged 33 and the narrator of this story. He’s a frustrated author who keeps writing novels which are rejected.
The film itself consists of a series of brief episodes, all of them in brutal bad taste. Throughout them runs a theme of throwing decency to the wind, exorbitant boozing, and a general relish for breaking society’s rules. The four brothers, and with them every able-bodied man in the village, participate in nude bicycle races and food and drink competitions (shades of Taxidermia). They never speak when they can shout, and never respect a rule when they can ignore it. This isn’t so much social protest as a visceral assertion of independence from any code of conduct or social responsibility. In the background, trying to limit the damage to the best of her ability is Gunther’s saintly grandmother (De Bal).
Shooting and cutting the film with a frenetic drive and energy, it seems at times as if van Groeningen goes along with the assumption that life is an uninterrupted ball and treats the Strobbe clan with a kind of barely dissimulated sympathy.
But then, gradually, he instills a sort of quiet despair that takes away most of the gaiety and underlines the damage it is all causing. The casting, mostly of unknowns outside Belgium, works perfectly. And using pre-classical excerpts, from Monteverdi and Orlando di Lassus, is just the kind of absolute order in art that best contrasts with the chaos on screen.
(33) 6 08 94 88 73
Felix van Groeningen
Based on novel by Dimitri Verhulst
Koen de Graeve
Gilda de Bal