Belgian filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael didn’t make too many films in his career which started almost 30 years ago. Mostly credited with making short films, Dormael has only three feature-length films to his credit as director. One of them is his 1991 feature-length debut, “Toto Le Heros”, a charming little film that came to my attention recently.
The story is narrated by an elderly man named Thomas (Michel Bouquet). He talks of his eventful yet ‘ordinary’ childhood, the ghosts of which continue to haunt him. Thomas believes that he was switched at birth during a fire at the hospital in which he was born, with his next door neighbor, Alfred Kant who was born on the same day. Alfred got a much better childhood, thanks to the switch, Thomas narrates. Alfred has become the object of Thomas’ hatred. Thomas feels Alfred is the reason for several problems in his life, right from their toddlerhood and that Alfred has been directly or indirectly responsible for Thomas’ wasted life! Thomas has long since, harbored a feeling of revenge, and swears to kill Alfred…stressing that he will be the only one to kill Alfred!
The film then switches back and forth between timelines, randomly placing scenes of Thomas’ childhood, adulthood and old age, as some light is thrown on various important episodes in Thomas’ life and why he regarded Alfred as his worst enemy. Thomas’ mind, however, seems to go astray, as he paints vivid fantasies, imagining himself to be ‘Toto’, a secret agent who saves his family from the evil Kant family, and also imagines him getting even with the bullies who troubled him in his childhood!
Dormael’s screenplay is absorbing and one of a kind. The scenes are tied together like flashes of memory instead of a real time narrative. That was the intention, as Dormael states in an interview. He wanted to avoid the heavy physical progression of time and rather make a screenplay that echoed or captured the thoughts of the central character Thomas. And it is very much like that, as the scenes keep jumping timelines and sometimes two timelines come together in a single scene. Not surprisingly, we do not have long, laborious takes; rather, scenes which are constantly on the move, barring a few crucial sequences which have to have a pace to match their oneiric quality. There are also times when certain events occurring in one timeline ‘echo’ in some form in another timeline. In a screenplay abundant with ambiguities concerning fantasy and reality, it is a product of a genuine and painstaking thought process put into the making of this film as the viewer would recognize. Thomas is an unreliable narrator, owing to his drifting away (at one point imagining shoving all the capsules of medication down the nurse’s throat, as she taunts him for “smoking again” and forcing him to take his medicine!), and therefore it is sometimes unclear whether a particular episode in Thomas’ life is fact or a figment of his imagination. But whatever is shown is all very interesting and pleasing to the eye.
It is interesting how the cinematography differs from time frame to time frame. Thomas’ childhood era is shown quite colourful and cheerful, with music and an atmosphere that cannot help but evoke a sense of nostalgia; the joyful nature and nostalgia further enhanced with Thomas’ father’s crooning of Charles Trenet’s wonderfully apt song, “Boum!”. The adulthood era is shown in a normal tone with the camera angle clearly changed, while the old age era appears much bleaker than the earlier eras! It is the way these subtle aspects have been handled in the filmmaking process that win this film extra points. On a broad level, “Toto Le Heros” reminded me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s semiautobiographical “Zerkalo (The Mirror)” and also Federico Fellini’s “8 ½”. In both the films, the narrator’s memories of old days are interspersed in the present, in a narrative that keeps shifting between the past and the present randomly. This is where the similarities end, of course. “Toto Le Heros” is a far cry from the art-house films that “Zerkalo” and “8 ½” are…in fact “Toto Le Heros” will appeal to both, the lovers of commercial entertainers, as well those who love thought provoking art cinema. This can be attributed to the crisp editing (by Susana Rosberg), thanks to the brisk pace, as scenes keep shifting between timelines (just like memories) and events keep happening throughout the modest 90 minutes length of the film, an intentional aspect demanded by Jaco Van Dormael, the auteur that he is.
The acting is commendable from most of the cast, particularly all three actors who play Thomas, Thomas Godet (as a child), Jo De Backer(adult) and Michel Bouquet (old man). Special mention should be made of Pascal Duquenne, an actor with Down Syndrome who plays Thomas’ brother Celestin. An endearing performance indeed!
Jaco Van Dormael clearly has talent. Too bad he kept himself limited to only a handful of movies. “Toto Le Heros” is a fascinating drama with a bittersweet and memorable ending. Definitely recommended!