The premise of this whimsical tale out of Belgium is that the protagonist Thomas Van Hasebroeck is convinced that, a) He and someone born the same day in the same hospital named Alfred Kant were inadvertently switched shortly after birth when the hospital caught fire and the babies were frantically grabbed and rescued from the blaze, b) He has had a shitty life, and c) Alfred has had a terrific life.
This has all left Thomas—who is in an old folks home at the start of the movie; the majority of the scenes are flashbacks—embittered. He blames Alfred for everything unsatisfying about his life, even though Alfred was a few hours or days old when the alleged switch took place. He believes Alfred has in effect stolen the life he himself was entitled to, and he has never forgiven him for that. Indeed, he is now intent on tracking down his rival and killing him in revenge.
In the flashbacks, we see some of the ways Thomas’s and Alfred’s lives have intersected over the years, starting from when they lived directly across the street from each other throughout their childhood. In each case, Thomas believes that Alfred, undeservedly, comes out on top.
I’m afraid Toto le héros never did much for me. I’ve certainly seen a lot worse movies; this isn’t, for instance, one of those confusing films that’s so unengaging I have trouble forcing myself to pay attention to it. I mean, it’s mildly interesting in some respects, but it’s not one I can recommend.
The message of the film is a kind of “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” thing, that Alfred’s life never looked anywhere near as good to him from the inside as it did to Thomas from the outside, and that furthermore insofar as Thomas had a shitty life it was in part a self-fulfilling prophecy, because he thought he was unjustly getting the short end of the stick from early in life and so always saw things negatively and never made much of an effort to change them.
I really don’t think I’m giving away too much by saying that, because—and this is the problem—it’s so obvious from early on in the film. At no point does it seem all that likely that Alfred’s life is vastly better than Thomas’s; it’s not a notion that needs to be dramatically upended to teach a lesson.
There’s just not much to the story, not to mention in some ways it doesn’t add up.
Let’s take this matter of the babies being mixed up in a fire. Not only does no one other than Thomas believe such an error could have happened, but those who were there insist there was never even any fire at the hospital.
So they aren’t just saying that everyone was very careful during the evacuation and it’s extremely unlikely any babies were misidentified; they are saying that this fire he somehow claims to “remember” from when he was a newborn never happened at all.
Well, how hard would it be to check? If a hospital burned down, or was so damaged by fire that the patients had to be evacuated, you would think it would have made the papers, or there would be some record of the conflagration. But Thomas never investigates it; he is certain (for no good reason) that his memory is infallible on this point.
And it’s not at all obvious that Thomas would have had a better life had he been born into Alfred’s household instead. Alfred’s family is richer than Thomas’s family as they are growing up, but not by some huge margin. They live right across the street from each other after all. Thomas’s family seems quite comfortable—his father is a pilot—even if Alfred typically gets more impressive, expensive toys.
Beyond material things, it’s not like Thomas’s childhood looks all that much more miserable than Alfred’s. Thomas gets bullied (Alfred and the other boys like to harass him with taunts of “Van Chickensoup!”—it must be a translation thing), so there’s that, but really Alfred seems no happier or more fortunate being a bully than Thomas does getting bullied.
Thomas has a younger brother with Down Syndrome, so maybe you could say he’s burdened there in a way that Alfred isn’t. But the problem with that is that Thomas and his brother have a loving relationship—in childhood and then in adulthood—that evidently enhances both of their lives, and furthermore Thomas by all appearances recognizes this. So not only does his having a handicapped brother not objectively detract from his life, but this is one of the exceptional instances where he doesn’t perceive something as doing so.
Really Thomas’s memories of childhood appear to be overwhelmingly positive. He adores his father (a lovable goofball) and mother, and is especially attached to his older sister—more on that below. His quintessential memory of childhood is his father leading the joyful family in singing Charles Trenet’s “Boum.” (Warning: Don’t watch the film unless you don’t mind having that song running through your mind indefinitely afterwards. “The clock goes tick-tack-tick-tick. The birds of the lake go pick-pack-pick-pick. Gobble-gobble-gobble, go the turkeys…”)
It’s true that Thomas then loses two close family members to death, so maybe we finally have a clear instance where his life is worse than Alfred’s, but the thing is, he already was convinced of his crackpot theory before those deaths occurred.
Most of Thomas’s memories—and the accompanying flashback scenes—are from his childhood, but there’s also one from when he was a young adult. He meets a woman, immediately falls for her, stalks her, quickly wins her over (utterly implausible, by the way—I would hope that precious few women would respond so favorably to a creepy stalker), and they enter into a relationship despite her being married. But then Thomas finds out that she is Alfred’s wife, and this spooks him into dumping her, and further persuades him that Alfred’s life is vastly better than his.
But does this even make sense? Thomas takes Alfred’s wife from him, and this counts as an instance of Alfred unjustly besting Thomas? Why? Perhaps the idea is that Alfred got there first, that Thomas is stuck with Alfred’s leftovers, but surely that would better fit a scenario where Alfred broke up with his wife and she only settled for Thomas because she could no longer have Alfred.
Think of it this way: If the opposite had occurred—if Thomas had gotten married, and then his wife had become unsatisfied with him and entered into an affair with Alfred—wouldn’t he have cited that as evidence that Alfred had defeated him again? So whichever way it came out, he was going to spin it into Alfred unjustly having the better life.
But let’s talk more about Thomas’s relationship with his sister.
It’s weird, and seems like it should be in a different movie, or different type of movie. It’s not that it has zero connection with this theme of Thomas insisting he got a raw deal when he and Alfred were allegedly switched at birth—because he is so close to his sister, he is aghast at any indication that she might have a friendship or relationship with Alfred, which plays a role in some important events in the story—but the unconventional nature of his relationship with his sister and the large portion of the film it occupies seem gratuitous.
During most of the flashback scenes, Thomas looks to be about 10 or 11, and his sister maybe 13 or 14. They are very close and unabashedly physical in their affection—lots of hugs and little kisses and such.
As she starts showing signs of womanhood, his interest in her becomes frankly more like a crush—certainly romantic, and almost as certainly sexual. He speaks of being in love with her, and of how he wishes they were in ancient Egypt where it was allowed, or so he has read, for brother and sister to marry each other.
She is largely receptive to his fondness for her moving into this new, more serious, area. Not that she initiates sex with him or anything, but she seems to relish and be flattered by the attention, and she certainly doesn’t discourage him.
Mostly they’re just very sweet toward each other; on the surface his quasi-sexual interest in his sister is not depicted in a particularly creepy way. But isn’t there still something weird and inappropriate about it?
I don’t know, maybe this kind of thing is really not so uncommon. I remember reading an article in a magazine decades ago where something like this came up. It has been so long that I can remember very little about it, just that it was a woman’s memoir of her childhood, and that some tiny portion of it had to do with her younger brother manifesting some kind of sexual interest in her. If I’m remembering it right, it was a matter of him wanting to get peeks at her naked, holding his hugs of her a little too long when her new breasts were up against him, etc., and how, even though she’d never been told anything about such a situation, she knew instinctively that she needed to subtly shut him down and not let him take any such liberties.
So maybe it’s a fairly common dynamic when a boy reaches the age where he first has sexual feelings, and there happens to be a young and attractive person with breasts and such living under the same roof, even one who happens to be a close family member, and the parties involved simply have to work through it. I don’t know that I’ve ever come across it except in that one magazine article, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen with some frequency.
But that just goes to the relationship’s degree of weirdness; it doesn’t mean it fits this particular movie.
Anyway, overall Toto le héros gets a thumbs down from me, but not by a big margin. It’s interesting in parts; I didn’t experience it as a waste of time. It’s not a bad movie, but more a below average movie.