'Toto le Heros' is a remarkable film of life's journey

April 23, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Hollywood anymore.

And we're not. We're in "Toto le Heros," an astonishing new film by a Belgian ex-clown named Jaco van Dormael, which opens today at the Charles.

"Toto" is based on a principle not much used in American movies: Life stinks, and then you die. (The American version: Life is a wonderful challenge, and then you get an agent.) It follows an old man who has lost his life in bitterness, who sets out to get revenge on the man upon whom he blames his misfortune, the man who has ruined him.

What he learns is that such a melodramatic, single-cause interpretation of something as multi-textured and ironic as "life" just won't cut it. There are always extenuating circumstances, conditional situations, equivocations and anomalies. "Life" is like gobbet of mercury that keeps quicksilvering away just as you seem to pin it down.

Michel Bouquet, looking a bit like Laurence Olivier, plays poor old Thomas, embittered prisoner in an old-age home. Thomas' ranking delusion is that Alfred, a neighbor and son of a prosperous grocery store owner who has grown up to be an industrialist, has subverted his whole life. He actually believes he's Alfred, but that a cruel jest of fate substituted babies in their cribs, and thus he's been forced to live a dreary life as Thomas. Thus when the word comes that assassins are tracking down Alfred (Peter Bohlke), it galvanizes Thomas into action. Alfred must die at his hands.

Thus begins his quest, and thus begins his education. Escaping from the institution, Thomas begins to stalk Alfred; meanwhile, his memory glides back and forth through time, reconstructing before his puzzled eyes his whole life. (Three separate actors play Thomas over the years, just as three play Alfred.)

In tone, "Toto" reminded me of nothing so much as the works of the American writer John Irving. The world according to van Dormael is much the same as the world according to Irving: a nocturne in melancholy grays, where love and disappointment, trust and betrayal, go hand in hand, tripping the light fantastic on the sidewalks where you walk. There's a streak of the fantastic, nearly surreal, running through it; at the same time, it's very much our world, the world of quotidian domesticity, of families and lovers, not some superheated cinema world of secret agents and commandos.

As he makes his voyage, Thomas comes to a remarkable discovery: that he was the author of his own ills, not the neighbor boy. And that he never loved those who loved him enough in turn; and that you have to seize the moment, because if you do not, it will vanish. His trip to murder in the end turns to something else indeed: an attempt, heroic as any Spartan on a hilltop facing the hordes, to regain not Alfred's, but his own life.

Van Dormael is nothing if not inventive; the movie is always spinning off on some fantastic riff or playing some witty trick with chronology. The movie is great fun and nearly unforgettable.

'Toto le Heros'

Starring Michel Bouquet and Mireille Perrier

Directed by Jaco Van Dormael

Released by Triton

Unrated

***

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