Monday, July 29, 2013

FI: The Son

The Son / Le Fils
Belgium/France, 2002
Written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Given that the Dardenne brothers have been among the biggest critical darlings of world cinema over the last twenty years, you might be forgiven for expecting their films to be somehow similarly epic. Yet their style is one of smallness, of tiny dramatic fragments from their working class and underclass subjects' everyday lives. Their unobtrusive, handheld camerawork is ideally suited for capturing the moments that play out on their actors' faces, patiently observing the microexpressions and gestures that subtly externalize their characters' conflicted inner lives. Like all of the brothers' films, The Son is loosely plotted, light on incident but heavy on genuine, earned emotion. It is a portrait of a good man with a tormented soul, and the decisions he makes in an attempt to put the past to rest.

Frequent Dardennes collaborator Olivier Gourmet plays Olivier, a carpenter who teaches troubled youths on work release from prison. He leads a regimented, practical, nearly ascetic life, perhaps to mitigate the physical toll of his trade and the mental toll of his past trauma. Years earlier, his son was murdered during an attempted robbery, and his marriage to Magali (Isabella Soupart) never recovered. But when The Son begins, the boy's killer Francis (Morgan Marinne) has come to the training center following his stint in jail. The boy has no-one to turn to, only the same fragmented family life that led him to crime in the first place. Francis does not know his connection to Olivier, but Olivier is fully aware and develops an interest in the boy, alternately obsessing about him to the level of stalking or protecting and helping him at work. Their relationship, a strange, mutual surrogate father-and-son bond, forms the film's heart.

Gourmet is the star, here, his burly physicality and bespectacled, every-man looks belying his character's emotional torment. The Dardennes place us firmly in his perspective without spelling out his motivations for taking Francis on as his apprentice, motivations that even Olivier doesn't fully understand. Will he punish the boy? Does he pity him? Is he merely trying to get close to the last person to see his son alive, or to make Francis into a substitute for the experiences his crime took away? All of these interpretations are possible, and the Dardennes aren't interested in giving us some clean, clear answer. Instead, they present the story as it is, simply and with no frills or forced beats, and allow the emotional and spiritual arcs to grow organically. This humanistic naturalism is their hallmark, and it is rarely as powerful or profound as it is here.

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