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‘Toto the Hero’

Reviewed by Robert M. Young

The extraordinary quality about this film is that it all seems to occur in the inner world. There is plenty of action, but we are never quite clear about what is the surface of life or the historical present of the narrative. What we see on the screen cuts from one period to another without any labels or punctuation. It is exactly like my experience, in that one's attention is shifted in a moment from what is coming in through the eyes to a distant memory to a recent one to something in young adulthood. I've never seen anything quite like it, except, to some degree, the dreamy flashback sequences in 'Last Year in Marienbad' I was left feeling that the director knew how my mind works.

In fact, after the opening sequence, there are basically three 'presents'. In the first moments of the film we see a hospital fire. Panic. A woman comes into the nursery, looks at a newborn, hesitates, then takes the one from the next crib. Another woman comes, looks at the empty crib, seems doubtful and takes the other baby. Dream? Real event? Imagined? We never learn.

What we do learn is that this supposed switch becomes the basis of a family romance which obsesses the central character, whom we next encounter alone and embittered in a retirement home, nursing a plan to get even with his supposed usurper. The theme of the film is the nature, vicissitudes and fruits of envy and the saving grace of reparation, however belated.

The three 'presents' are the boyhood, young adulthood and old age of Thomas or Toto. As a boy he confronts his neighbour on the day when the other boy, Alfred, gets a lovely toy car. Toto claims that they were switched at the hospital and that the car, the rich parents and their big house are rightfully his. To no avail. He is reduced to a species of 'living' his own life, full of bitterness, continually plotting revenge, never inhabiting his own space. No marriage, no children, unfulfilled in his work.

Toto's father worked for the neighbour, a successful and aspiring grocer. The father was also a pilot, and his boss sent him on a mission over the Channel, and the plane was lost. It turns out that the 'mission' was to smuggle marmalade. More tragedies beset Toto's family. His brother has Downs Syndrome. When the mother and the brother go off to identify the father's body, Toto's sister has a cunning plan to stay at home and be naughty instead of going to camp. They succeed, but their proto-incestuous idyll is ruined when Toto discovers that his sister is attracted to Alfred. He issues a dire loyalty oath, as a result of which his sister dies in a fire which was supposed to harm the neighbours.

We next meet Toto as a young professional. He glimpses a woman who is agonizingly like his sister. He seeks her out, woos and wins her, only to discover on the day when they are supposed to run off together that she is the unhappy wife of Alfred. In this moment, as in others, his omnipotence fails him, and his guilt about the impulse takes its toll on his ability to have satisfactions. He ends up the loser. Thomas moves away and doesn't meet her again until he escapes from the old people's home to carry out his plan to kill Alfred.

He discovers again - as he had as a young man - that Alfred is far from enviable. In fact, he is the designated target for revenge-seeking killers, as a result of the collapse of the family grocery chain.

There is a fourth reality interwoven with the three 'presents'. It is of Thomas as a grand detective/spy/hero. We get glimpses of this ego ideal version of his self in the imagination of the boy, the man and the old man - a film/television character who is brave and always saves the day. In the denouement of the story (which it would be churlish to reveal), this fantasy hero comes into his own.

It is of the essence of the way the film is constructed by its Belgian director, Jaco van Dormael, that we are seldom confident about which 'present' we are inhabiting at a given moment. My experience is that in the final sequence these intermingle on the surface of the film in an extraordinary act of integrative reparation which fully justifies the title. As I write about it, I fear that I still have not conveyed how extraordinarily well it portrays the way experience jumps among various time frames and facets that make up the self and one's sense of identity. I have seen the film listed as the year's best in some places and among the top ten in many others. It was certainly one of the most absorbing ones I saw in 1991.

Copyright: The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ


The Human Nature Review
Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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