7 April 2002 | DeeNine-2
A kind of naturalistic delight
Thomas is a bitter old man who feels he has been cheated out of the life that was rightly his because he and another boy were switched at birth during a fire at the hospital. Alfred, the other boy, lives a life of privilege and becomes rich. Thomas is jealous. But in another sense Thomas needs to believe that he was switched because he falls in love with his sister Alice. If he really was switched, they are not related.
This is just one of the ironic witticisms spun out by Jaco van Dormael, who wrote and directed this striking and totally original bit of life triumphant. Veteran French actor Michel Bouquet plays Thomas as an old man, sneaking cigarettes in the old folks home, reliving his memories, plotting his revenge. Jo De Backer plays Thomas as a slightly nerdish young man, consumed by the loss of his beloved sister in a fire when she was about eleven or twelve. One day by accident he spots a woman who reminds him of his sister. He follows her, they fall in love, and it turns out she is married to Alfred! Thomas Godet plays the little boy Thomas with charm and a touching vulnerability. He is picked on and bullied by Alfred and his friends who taunt him with, "van Chickensoup!" (I wonder if the French Academie approves of this vulgar Anglais.) Sandrine Blancke plays Thomas's cute and impish older sister. Mireille Perrier plays Evelyne, who is the woman who reminds Thomas of his sister.
In a sense this is a romantic comedy, but be warned that in the French cinema a hint of incest is seldom looked on as shocking, rather as something almost akin to nostalgia. And certainly every woman should have a lover and every man a mistress. In another sense this is an art film that plays with time, using both flashbacks and flash forwards to present a story filled with spooky coincidences, punctuated with fantasy and a kind of naturalistic glorification of life epitomized in the catchy tune, "Boom!" that weaves its way in and out of the story, a tune you might have trouble getting out of your head, so be forewarned. ("Boom! When your heart goes boom! It's love, love, love!" written and performed by Charles Trenet.) There is also as aspect of sentimentality, especially in the resolution, that provides a sweet contrast with the naturalistic pathos. When the words that Alice spoke as a child is reprised by Evelyne (although she could not have known what Alice had said) we are delighted, and Thomas is a little rattled.. ("Do you like my hands?" she asks, holding them up. "Which hand do you prefer?")
The bitter old man learns that he really had the better of it all along (and so he does somewhat the opposite of what he had intended) and indeed we in the audience realize that how we might feel about life, looking back on it, might really just depend on how we choose to feel about it. Dormael's message seems to be that love makes life worth living. We are left with the sense that there is a time for love, and that time passes, and we have to accept that and celebrate the memory.
Best scene: Ten-year-old Thomas sees his perhaps 11-year-old sister rising out of the bath tub. (We see only his widening eyes; this is a discreet movie.) He says, "I...didn't know you had breasts." She replies (deadpanning the pride of a pre-adolescence girl), "I thought you'd read about them in the newspapers."
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