Duel in 'The Son'
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Following on the heels of their acclaimed La promesse (1997) and their Palm D'Or winning Rosetta (1999), the Dardenne brothers are back with another of their bleak, yet brilliant films, The Son.
At first glance, The Son plays a lot like a typical Dogme 95 film. A hand-held camera bounces along as it follows Olivier (Olivier Gourmet), a wood shop teacher with four young students under his tutelage.
For some reason, we mostly see the back of Olivier's head, as if the camera didn't have enough space to maneuver around to his front side. Or perhaps it can't quite catch up to him as he races around keeping his students from cutting their fingers off on power tools.
At the same time, the camera stays tight on Oliver, as if unwilling to allow any outside interference in. We never get a sense of how big the wood shop is, or indeed any of the locations Olivier inhabits. (He has a huge growth behind his ear that we get to stare at for long minutes at a time. Eww.)
But the phone rings, and someone asks Olivier if he has space for a new student. Annoyed, he quickly says no, but something clicks and he becomes fascinated with the identity of the new boy.
Through a series of carefully-written scenes, we eventually learn that the new boy, Francis (Morgan Marinne) was responsible for killing Olivier's young son during a robbery five years earlier. In the meantime, Olivier and his wife Magali (Isabella Soupart) have divorce while the boy served time in juvenile hall.
Early in the film, Magali comes to see Olivier and announces that she's pregnant and will soon remarry, which may spark Olivier's decision to take Francis on as a new apprentice. When she later discovers Olivier's interest in the boy, she's shocked and angered. What the hell is he doing, she asks. "I don't know," he says.
Olivier is no life of the party, but his cold, non-communicative manner grows even more so when dealing with the sullen youth. The teacher bides his time, observing Francis and maybe waiting for something to happen, or waiting for the right moment to say something.
That moment comes during a Saturday road trip to the lumberyard. Olivier invites Francis along to teach him about the different kinds of wood and the two are together alone for hours. Francis takes a shine to the older man and even asks him to be his guardian. We realize that Olivier has reached the point of no return. His curiosity has become actual involvement.
As the film grows closer to its climax, the Dardennes' camera finally stops swerving around so much and pulls back to show us where we are. The deserted lumberyard becomes a huge and foreboding setting, making its two occupants seem small, almost like termites among the wood.
In retrospect, the jerky camerawork becomes absolutely intricate; it couldn't have unfolded in any other way.
The Son presents an astonishingly simple story told with incredible power and restraint; the film doesn't even use a hint of a musical score. It makes the Dogme films look amateurish by comparison; the hand-held camera in those films rarely has such a singular purpose as it does here.
Gourmet, who won the Best Actor award at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, deserves most of the credit. He doesn't feel the need to make his Olivier likable, just truthful. It's an ego-less performance. He allows us to witness dull moments such as making soup or doing sit-ups, but most importantly, he allows us to see Olivier thinking -- not the kind of thinking that elicits answers, but the kind of thinking that only raises more questions.
DVD Details: New Yorker's new DVD comes with the foreign-language trailer, interviews with the Dardennes and with Gourmet, a still gallery and filmographies. And, incidentally, my quote appears on the back of the box.