Thomas (Michel Bouquet) is now an old man living in a retirement home, but as he looks back on his life he sees a pattern emerge. He was never happy or content and it has become crystal clear why, namely the presence of Alfred in his life. Thomas believes he was accidentally swapped with Alfred when they were in hospital shortly after being born on the same day because of a fire that tore through the building. So his next door neighbour brought him up while his considerably richer parents brought up Alfred, and this sense of injustice has lasted through Thomas' whole life. But he will finally get even. He is going to track Alfred down and murder him. He hasn't forgotten.
Writer and director Jaco van Dormael's first feature was inspired by a viewing of Dennis Potter's classic television serial The Singing Detective, or at least it bolstered his conviction that his ideas could be made into a film. His output has been frustratingly small which could easily mean he is overlooked, but the filmmaker's work is so original in conception that there is a small cult that surrounds him and keeps his reputation alive. In truth, this is chiefly down to the artistic success of Toto the Hero, or Toto le Héros as it was known in his native Belgium.
The age old "name famous Belgians" game might not include van Dormael, but the way he packs a whole life into ninety minutes here suggests he is a force to be reckoned with. Of course, it's not the entire existence of Thomas (Toto is the spy movie alter ego he dreams of), but the parts he can recall and which fuel his bitterness. If he didn't have this burning resentment then he would lose his reason to live, and he has the murder of Alfred planned with military precision: escape the confines of the retirement home, track down Alfred's mansion and use his gun on his rival after a brief speech justifying himself.
But we also see Thomas' childhood which indicates that whether the couple bringing him up were his parents or not, he couldn't have wished for a better start if only his jealousy at Alfred hadn't been allowed to take root in his mind. The tone of the film can be offputting for one minute it's darkly dramatic and the next it is inventively playful, but always the lead character's dissatisfaction is plain. There is one love of his life and in an uncomfortable development she is Alice (Sandrine Blancke), his sister. We're never sure if his love is incestuous or not as we're never sure how accurate Thomas is in his assumptions, but to his horror Alfred takes Alice's fancy as well.
There are scenes in Toto the Hero that are so intimate they seem like an intrusion, and although there is great joy in the film, there is also despair as in many lives. But Thomas appears to take the position that he is the only person who has ever felt let down by life which may make you sympathise, but more likely want him to pull himself together and appreciate what he had all along. He lost his father, mother and Alice, but so did Alfred who he presumed was having a much better time and when he eventually reaches the conclusion that perhaps he has been wrong all along, he does so too late. With an incredible ending encapsulating that veering tone, van Dormael was truly a talent to be reckoned with, however many (or few) films he made. Superb orchestral score by Pierre van Dormael and just try and get the "Boum" song out of your head after watching this.