With his sister Alice and brother Celstin, Thomas Van Hasebroeck was the optimistic and carefree child of a loving middle-class French family, their father a commercial pilot who told stories which Thomas wove into his own fantasies in which he became Toto the Hero, a man who would never become a disillusioned adult or a bitter old man seeking revenge.
The same age as Alfred Kant, the boy who lived next across the street from their childhood home, his father the owner of a growing chain of supermarkets, Alfred’s fortunes flourished as he grew older while that of Thomas and his family diminished after their father was reported missing when his aeroplane went down over the English channel.
So Thomas retreated more into his fantasies, believing that he and Alfred had been switched shortly after birth, that he was the rightful heir to the Kant empire, that Alice was not really his sister, that the events of his life would prove him right and set things on their course, and if they did not, then he would have to push circumstances to his required outcome.
Originally released in 1991 when it won the award for best first feature for director Jaco Van Dormael at the Cannes Film Festival, Toto the Hero (Toto le héros) is now released on Blu-ray by Arrow Academy, a melange of images, emotions and desires as eighty years of the life of Thomas Van Hasebroeck are compressed into a ninety minute torrent of impressions.
Told in three time periods which merge together with the same disregard for conventional structure as Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s celebrated Amélie, released ten years later yet sharing the same vibrant colour and classic period design, Thomas is played as child, adult and old man by Thomas Godet, Jo De Backer and Michel Bouquet, the latter also dubbing the voice of adult Thomas to provide continuity.
Slipping between comedy and tragedy, drama and fantasy, the background characters are glimpsed only in snatches yet are fully comprehended by the viewer as archetypes coloured by Thomas’ interest in spy fiction and persistent resentments, some imagined and some very real, all too understandable by those who have lived in the shadow of another rewarded for no other achievement than their birth.
Bouquet agreeing to play the lead after the director found his number in the Paris telephone directory and cold-called him to ask if he could send him the script, he shares credit for the screenplay along with Didier De Neck, Pascal Lonhay and Laurette Vankeerberghen, Van Dormael explaining his inspiration in a quote from Rimbaud: “We become what we thought we would never be and do what we though we would never do.”
Initially conceived to have Thomas as an adult living in contemporary France and the chronologically later scenes set in a more explicit future, concept artist François Schuiten and Van Dormael discuss their plans for a layered science fiction environment of monorails above Paris in the accompanying features but ultimately the cost was prohibitive, the result being that Toto the Hero instead breathes in a somewhat magical eternal “now,” stylised and unchanging yet perhaps more accessible for existing outwith the confinement of genre.