Toto the Hero (1991) – Film Review
Director: Jaco Van Dormael
Cast: Michel Bouquet, Mireille Perrier, Jo De Backer
by Sarah Morgan
Fantasy, reality and ghosts from a painful past combine in Belgian filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael’s acclaimed 1991 comedy-drama.
It’s set in the near future, where Thomas Van Hasebroeck (who has nicknamed himself Toto) is living a dull existence in some kind of nursing home from hell – each pensioner’s room resembles a prison cell rather than a pleasant place in which to live out the rest of their days.
“Series of flashbacks”
He dreams about killing Alfred, a wealthy businessman. The pair lived next door to each other as children and were born on the same day. Thomas is convinced they were swapped at birth and that he should have lived a life of luxury and privilege, while Alfred should have been dealing with the problems he endured, including the early and tragic death of his father.
The film is made up of a series of flashbacks, some real, some imagined; it isn’t always made clear which is which, so it’s up to the viewer to work it out for themselves. Some are obvious, such as the fantasy Thomas has that he’s a Sam Spade-style private eye, complete with homburg and trench coat.
Others, however, are less clear – does Thomas manage to woo and win the heart of Alfred’s wife Evelyne, who reminds him of his long-lost sister Alice? Did his mother once really disappear, overcome with grief at the loss of her husband, leaving her children home alone? It’s difficult to tell.
To be honest, the answer isn’t really important; it’s all just part of a whimsical play on memory and how, due to the passing of time, it can play tricks on us all. There are also musings on the importance of fantasy in ordinary life too.
Toto the Hero won the Camera d’Or at Cannes, which is awarded to debut directors. Van Dormael has gone on to create some of the most intriguing European movies of the past 20 years, including my personal favourite, The Eighth Day; one of its stars, Pascal Duquenne, who has Down’s Syndrome, has a small role in Toto as Thomas’s brother Celestin.
The only problem I had with the film is the casting. Michel Bouquet plays Thomas as an old man, but neither Jo De Backer nor Thomas Godet, who play him at earlier stages in his life, look as if they would end up looking like him. But maybe that’s all part of the character’s fantasy world too – only Van Dormael could tell us the truth.
• High definition digital transfer
• Original Uncompressed mono audio
• Newly translated optional English subtitles
• Memories of Hero – an extensive documentary on the making of Toto featuring members of the cast and crew
• Francois Schuiten – Architect of an Unfinished Dream – the comic book artist and concept artist for Toto discusses his involvement in the film and working with Van Dormael
• Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Scott Saslow
Toto the Hero is released on blu-ray by Arrow, £24.99