Dardenne & Dardenne’s THE SON [8/10]

So, who is the son in The Son? The early stretches offer few clues, as the camera follows close behind a carpentry teacher, Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) as he goes about his business – so closely, in fact, that some viewers may recall the priceless exchange in Sexy Beast where Ian McShane ticks off James Fox for staring at the back of his head. Olivier is offered a new pupil but says his class is full, only to impulsively changes his mind and accept the newcomer. Francis (Morgan Marinne) is a 16-year-old youth in whom the teacher takes a strong, furtive interest. He can barely keep his eyes off the lad, and when he steals Francis’s keys and prowls around his apartment we seem to be heading towards gay-paedophilia territory.

But Olivier’s conversation with his ex-wife Magalli (Isabella Soupart) reveals otherwise – it turns out that Francis was somehow responsible for the death of their son five years before. So is this dead child the ‘son’ referred to by the film’s title? Yes and no. Because an unlikely, tentative relationship then slowly develops between Olivier and Francis, who isn’t aware of the pair’s previous connection. The fatherless kid, who has only just been released from detention, needs a guardian, and asks Olivier if he’ll fulfil the role. Francis, we realise, could also be ‘the son.’

But even this isn’t quite the full answer – the film climaxes with the pair visiting a lumber-yard, where Olivier suddenly confronts Francis with the truth. The boy’s reaction forces the older man to choose between revenge and forgiveness – and we finally realise that this is a film about a carpenter who may (or may not) be about to turn the other cheek. Olivier’s child and Francis are the ‘sons’ – but there’s also another Son involved here, to whom the pared-down screenplay makes not a single reference.

The Son bristles with the constant threat of violence – Olivier’s working environment is full of tools that could, in a moment, be used as deadly weapons. But hardly anything actually ‘happens,’ and any decent editor would be able to compress the handful of ‘events’ into less than 20 minutes. The slow-burning pace may tax the patience of many viewers, but we’re a long way from those pretentious arthouse movies (such as Japon) that are slow for slowness’s sake, the resSult of a misconception that funereal solemnity must inevitably lead to profundity.

The pacing is, rather, deliberate. Just as Olivier’s profession enables him to accurately gauge distances, the Dardennes are equally expert at judging the length of scenes, the balance between quietness and eruption, and the rate at which each new scrap of crucial information is slotted into place. Though there’s an obvious parallel with In The Bedroom, this is a much less histrionic, much less rigged, and much more believable miniature of retribution and conscience.

In both films, however, performances are crucial, and the proximity of the Dardennes’ camera places a major burden on the actors – as does the complete (and refreshing) lack of background music. Both Olivier and Francis are, for different reasons, very undemonstrative characters (the older man’s penned-in emotions indicated by the leather support he wears for a back condition) – and Gourmet and Marinne rise to the task with precise, believable performances. Marinne, in fact, fares at least as well as Cannes prize-winner Gourmet.

The impact of The Son is gradual and cumulative, right up to an the ending which comes at exactly the correct moment: a wordless scene which, while open to multiple interpretations, seems to indicate the exact state of the film’s central relationship. The early stretches of tedium are easily forgiven and forgotten, because by this stage the filmhas emerged a serious, engaging, rigorous, serious use of celluloid, with barely a frame, gesture or word out of place.

Neil Young

3rd November, 2002
(seen 31
st October, National Film Theatre, London – London Film Festival)

The Son : Le Fils : Belgium (/Fr) 2002 : Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne : 103m : [8/10]