“I often have that strange and penetrating dream, of an unknown woman whom I love and who loves me. And every time, she’s neither quite the same nor completely different…”–Toto the Hero
DIRECTED BY: Jaco Van Dormael
FEATURING: Michel Bouquet, Jo De Backer, Thomas Godet, Sandrine Blancke, Mireille Perrier, Peter Böhlke, Didier Ferney, Hugo Harold-Harrison
PLOT: Thomas firmly believes that he was switched at birth with his next door neighbor, Alfred: that Alfred’s parents are really his parents, that Alfred’s toys should be his, that his destiny was appropriated by Alfred. He’s also romantically attracted to his sister, and jealous of the attention she shows the neighbor boy; this obsession pursues him to adulthood, when he finds a woman who reminds him of his sister so much that he fears it may actually be her. Now an old man in a nursing home, Thomas plots to kill Alfred and take back the life that was stolen from him.
- Writer/director Jaco Van Dormael was a circus clown before turning to filmmaking.
- Despite critical praise for each of his movies, Van Dormael has only made three features in 20 years: Toto the Hero, The Eighth Day [Le huitième jour] (1996), and Mr. Nobody (2009).
- It took Van Dormael five years to write the dense script (working with three credited collaborators).
- Toto won the Camera D’or (a prize recognizing the best debut feature film) at Cannes in 1991.
- Paramount Pictures apparently owns the distribution rights in the U.S., but has not shown any interest in releasing the film on Region 1 DVD (it was released on VHS). Toto is available on DVD in Region 2.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Toto the Hero relies on its elaborate narrative structure rather than visuals for its effect, but the movie’s iconic image is young Thomas clutching his toy airplane; appropriately, it’s only memorable due to the point in the story where it occurs. (If you must have a weird scene instead of the most memorable one, pick the image of Thomas’ dead father and sister appearing to him on the back of a moving truck, playing a piano and trumpet duet).
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The story structure, which dives in and out of narrative wormholes, emerging at different points in Thomas’ life. There are flashbacks inside of flashbacks, with a liberal sprinkling of fantasy sequences mixed in—some obvious, some more ambiguous. And all the incest stuff—with a beloved sister who seems not to stay dead—doesn’t hurt the movie’s weirdness one bit, either.
Clip from Toto les Heros (in French)
COMMENTS: At some point in all of our lives, we will inevitably fail to land that job orpromotion we crave, or to make that perfect potential mate fall helplessly in love with us. When such a personal failure stings and we’re feeling down in the dumps, the temptation to blame our troubles on parents, bosses, spouses, the receiver who dropped the game-winning touchdown, or some perceived nemesis or rival can become overwhelming. Jaco Van Dormael’s Toto the Hero gently and affectionately mocks that natural human weakness by creating a character who takes the tendency to blame others in order to avoid self-confrontation to absurd lengths, materializing the object of his hatred into a single individual and funneling all his hatred and resentment at that one man. The film then imprisons us inside his delusional mind, showing us an entire life as seen through paranoid eyes.
Thomas is convinced that Alfred Kant has somehow stolen his life, and that therefore he’s not responsible for any of his own misfortunes. Convalescing in a nursing home, he plots revenge for a lifetime of imaginary wrongs, and it simply never occurs to him that his loneliness is his own fault. He’s a hero in his own mind, where he takes on the persona of gunslinging, fedora-wearing “secret agent” Toto (with a tommy-gun toting Alfred Kant, natch, cast as the arch villain). The dusty old man wears his resentment casually and habitually—when asked to take his medication, he imagines himself furiously stuffing pills down a nurse’s throat, when in reality he meekly pops them himself without a word of objection.
Lying in bed near the end of his days, Thomas complains, “I haven’t ever lived. Nothing happened to me.” The story that follows, full of tragic deaths and incestuous longings, belies that judgment; but even if his life had been uneventful, it wouldn’t have been the fault of Alfred Kant, as the old man believes. In the life Thomas relates to us, we watch him allow himself to drift randomly into an unfulfilling career in surveying and sabotage a chance at happiness with a woman who, incredibly, falls in love with him. He plots lifelong revenge, then chickens out of killing his nemesis when he has him in his power. He blames Kant for stealing his life, but what we see is a man who remains passive and refuses to seize what he needs, preferring instead to live in comfortable fantasies where everything that goes wrong is the fault of someone else. Thomas even re-imagines the scene from Vertigo where Jimmy Stewart tries to remake Kim Novak in the image of the woman he believes to be dead (just as at one point he seems to be making the alluring Evelyne into his dead sister Alice), but in his dream he casts the scene backwards: unable to face his own culpability, he has his whipping boy Kant play the delusional detective rather than himself.
One of the strangest features of Toto is the uncomfortable erotic attraction between the pre-pubescent Thomas and his barely-pubescent sister Alice, a life-defining experience for our hero that’s only magnified in his mind by the tragic end to their relationship. In fact, in terms of its impact on Thomas’ psychology, we almost wonder if he invents and clings to his improbable switched-at-birth personal mythology entirely to justify sexual desire for his sister; it’s not really his sister, you see. The relationship haunts his adult years when he meets a woman who reminds him of his lost sibling. The second act of the movie, where Thomas obsessively romances Evelyne, is filled with coincidences and ambiguities that turn it into the weirdest segment of the film. Is Evelyne actually his sister Alice, having somehow escaped her fate and built a new life under a new name? Does Alfred Kant somehow play a part in this conspiracy? Thomas finds ample evidence to support that idea, but nobody else sees the connection. When he finds a keepsake in Evelyne’s home that looks suspiciously like one that once belonged to Alice, or hears his lover speak peculiar lines of dialogue that come verbatim from his sister, is it all happening entirely in his imagination? He’s attracted to Evelyne because she looks like a grown-up version of Alice, but does he imagine that she really is his sister as an excuse to cop out and run away when things get serious, when it looks like he may actually have to take responsibility for making his own happiness? We find ourselves mired in Thomas’ poisoned point-of-view for this entire courtship, unable to distinguish fact from fantasy; we can’t tell what really happens, but we do directly perceive the emotional impact the affair has on our hero.
Toto the Hero‘s script is remarkable because it demonstrates that the literal, linear plot is not the story; it’s just a carrier for the story. The story in Toto is Thomas’ passivity and existential buck-passing; the incidents chosen to demonstrate these characteristics are almost arbitrary. The screenplay leaps about in time and in reality, with three separate actors playing Thomas, but we never get lost in the tale or too terribly confused, because Thomas’ emotional and psychological realities are always clear and compelling. Young Thomas imagining himself as the heroic Toto (and seeing his adventures acted out on his black and white TV tube) segues into old Thomas scoffing at the memory, leading to another flashback showing the drabness of the workaday world adult Thomas actually inhabited. That version of Thomas later has a flashback that continues the story of his youth, and the story continues on in this stream-of-consciousness manner. Van Dormael’s skill in telling this complicated, intricately structured fable in his first outing as a filmmaker is amazing; most seasoned writers and directors wouldn’t even attempt a narrative this convoluted, and those who tried would struggle just to make this novelistic wealth of incident, fantasy, subtext and backstory comprehensible. Van Dormael not only pulls it off; he makes it look effortless and natural.
As fine a piece of work as Toto is, and as incredibly offbeat as it seems to the average moviegoer who never even considers watching subtitled films, I’m aware that this is a weird movie project, and so I must stump a bit for this films weirdness. The unconventional plot structure and mix of fantasy with reality certainly helps the film, but is it enough to elevate this pic from the merely quirky to the truly weird? I offer the following scattered scenes as evidence that Toto is, indeed, a weird film: Thomas’ impossible memory of being switched at birth during a hospital fire (note that incidents from his fantasies and future are playing on a TV screen as the inferno rages). Young Thomas matter-of-factly relating his self-invented family folklore (his dad dropped in one day by parachute and licked his mom’s hand to create his sister). The tulips dancing during a happy family singalong to Charles Trenet’s freakishly bouncy chanson hit, “Boum.” Alice threatening the Virgin Mary. The unresolved confusion over whether Evelyne really is Alice. Thomas randomly meeting (and strangling) his own doppelgänger on a train. Secret agent Toto walking in on one of Thomas’ unrelated daydreams, and shooting his way out. Toto taking obscene advantage of the principle of Evil Marksmanship to mow down a gang of ruffians. Thomas’ dead father and sister appearing to the old man on the back of a moving truck, playing a duet. Thomas’ farewell montage, which includes stampeding poultry and a toy boat (also scored to the ubiquitous “Boum”). If these examples of sprinkled surrealism don’t convince you that this psychological drama-comedy-fantasy hybrid is odd enough to earn a place as one of the best weird movies of all time, then I refer you to the First Law of Selecting Weird Movies for the List: “Sometimes, if a movie is very weird, it will make the list ahead of a better movie. Sometimes, if a movie is very good, it does not have to be quite as weird.“
Toto the Hero paints a portrait of a life wasted in lifelong envy and resentment, but manages to be whimsical and life-affirming at the same time. The film theorizes that even the unhappiest of human lives are full of luminous wonder, and that it’s never too late in life to discover a splendidly symmetrical form of redemption. Toto the Hero is an excellent movie; nearly forgotten thanks to boorish distributors, but a minor classic nonetheless.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“This is an interesting film, but I would have liked it more, I think, if it had been more bitter and unforgiving; if someone like Bunuel had directed it.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)
“…deliciously offbeat… That Thomas’ life… is the product of his imagination is made clear not only by the presence of his comic-strip alter ego (the avenging detective of the title), but by the dreamily surreal story and visuals.”–Geoff Andrews, Time Out Film Guide
IMDB LINK: Toto the Hero (1991)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Ideas and Stories — A Review of Toto le Hero – Screenwriter Bill Johnson discusses the movie’s narrative strategy in this excerpt from a longer essay
HOME VIDEO INFORMATION: Unforgivably, Toto the Hero is not available on DVD in Region 1 (the US and Canada), it’s only available in a full frame (pan and scan) VHS tape (buy). Even the Dutch Region 2 DVD (buy) contains no special features, although at least it presents the film in the proper widescreen format.
UPDATE 8/7/202: Arrow Academy has finally made Toto available in Region 1 on Blu-ray (buy). It features a couple of featurettes interviewing the cast and crew; the first pressing comes with a booklet.
(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Nina,” who said it’s “wonderful & has a cool Charles Trenet song on the soundtrack. Some might consider it strange, but not necessarily weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)