Watching The Misfortunates, it’s hard not to think of Joachim Trier’s Reprise. Certainly there are many similarities between the two films, especially in their equation of artistic expression with egoistic entitlement. Both feature lead characters who aspire to literary greatness and treat their friends and loved ones with indifference or contempt. Reprise‘s would-be author, Erik, rejects his girlfriend for not being as smart as him, while The Misfortunates‘s Gunther threatens to leave his lover if she doesn’t abort his child. Both are prone to idol-worship: Erik looks up to a (fictional) reclusive author while Gunther reveres Roy Orbison.
Where Erik and Gunter would surely differ is in their respective definitions of art. Erik strongly denies that art, especially literature, need be representative of the self, that it doesn’t necessarily have to be confessional or cathartic in nature—the cults of Frank McCourt and Maya Angelou be damned!—lest a tabloid-y examination of the author’s life history overwhelm a critical reading of the actual work; Gunther, on the other hand, identifies his dysfunctional upbringing and coming of age as exactly the material for his writing. Needless to say, these different attitudes toward aesthetics also reflect the points of view, respectively, of Joachim Trier and The Misfortunates‘s director, Felix van Groeningen. Whereas Reprise is a sharp-witted Nouvelle Vague homage interested more in its style than its sentiment, The Misfortunates embraces its fair share of schmaltz and nostalgia.
Employing an intermittent flashback structure, van Groeningen oscillates between Gunther’s adult life as a frustrated writer and his screwy Flemish childhood raised by his eternal teenager of a father and similarly wastrel uncles. He’s distracted and misbehaved at school, small wonder considering the ADD-level frenzy of his home life, with a drunken father constantly questioning whether Gunther really is his son, repo men carting off the furniture and television, and uncles participating in epic beer-drinking contests and naked bicycle races. After a social worker declares this to be an unfit environment for a child, young Gunther is taken off to boarding school, where he is first able to develop an intellectual space for himself as a writer.
It’s clear that adult Gunther is trying to exploit the volatility of his childhood years for his first book, a memoir, but even though he waxes depressively about his youth with lines of narration like “It occurred to me again: beautiful things either got destroyed or left our village,” there’s a cockeyed charm to his upbringing. Yes, the few occasions when his father chokes him or calls him the “son of a slut” could be based on the novel Push by Sapphire, but mostly his youth seems like it’s out of The Royal Tenenbaums, but with drab colors and more penis jokes. Is this tonal confusion a sign of directorial ineptitude? Possibly. Van Groeningen does seem to want to emphasize the instability of Gunther’s youth by shooting all the flashback scenes with a handheld camera, in contrast with his more stable adulthood shot using a tripod or dolly. But it could be a deeper irony of the film that Gunther exaggerates the misery of his childhood for commercial purposes. Miserabilism is the surest path to Oprah’s Book Club, after all.
It’s a tribute to van Groeningen’s storytelling sense that he leaves this point rather vague; some may see Gunther’s childhood, raised by a family that’s not “misfortunate” by circumstance so much as by choice, as indeed abominable. Others may see it as flawed, but loving and supportive, if not always in the way a child needs. One thing’s for certain though: The director’s vision of this story allows for more uncertainty than Gunther’s ever would.