Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have dazzled serious critics with their austere, character-driven movies. Their current entry, The Son, like Rosetta before it, is not an easy film to watch, but it rewards the patient viewer amply by the time it reaches its conclusion.
Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) teaches carpentry at a vocational training center. He’s ordinary-looking, stolid, strong, eyes hidden behind thick glasses, with the permanently stained fingernails of a man who works with his hands. He wears a support brace for protection and does crunches at home to remedy a bad back.
A scene places him in a stairwell, taking a cigarette break; when he’s finished he stubs out the cigarette on the sole of his shoe and puts the butt in his pocket–this is a guy who plays by the rules. He teaches the boys in his class meticulously, concerned both with safety and with the precision of their trade.Messages heard on his answering machine at home make clear his concern for his students beyond the official demands of the classroom.
His ex-wife works at a filling station; she informs him that she is pregnant and is remarrying. He lives alone in a bare-bones flat.
A new student, Francis (Morgan Marinne), enters the school. At first Olivier makes excuses and refuses to take him into his class. But he’s curious and changes his mind. He gives the boy a lift home one day, so knows where he lives. Later, he takes the boy’s keys and goes to his apartment to check it out–even lying on the bed, as if trying to place himself inside the boy’s head.
Francis, now 16, killed Olivier’s son in a botched robbery attempt when he was 11. He’s only just been released from prison when he arrives at the school and Olivier knows who he is. The film draws in the character of the boy as richly as it does that of Olivier. He doesn’t know where his father is and his mother’s boyfriend doesn’t want her to see him, so he’s an isolated kid. He doesn’t know that Olivier was the father of his victim.
The Dardennes closely observe the work of carpenters and the sounds of sawing and hammering in the shop. They build their story with a series of small incidents, including competitions between man and boy–a distance estimation challenge, a table soccer game. Slowly, as the history is revealed and characterizations developed, the film generates substantial tension as to what resolution will come of this unlikely pairing. Both Gourmet (Laissez-passer, Rosetta) and young Marinne give naturalistic, understated performances that grow in intensity as the film inexorably drives towards its climactic confrontation.
It’s no accident that the Dardennes (who are jointly credited with both direction and the screenplay) made Olivier a carpenter, clearly a reference to the New Testament and a lead into their parable. Although the parallels are not laid out schematically, they are telling a story of redemption, of compassion and the possibilities of forgiveness. At the same time the characters are psychologically credible, their actions plausibly motivated, even if they don’t always quite understand why they are doing what they are doing.The Dardennes tell their story with a disciplined focus–there is no waste here. General audiences may find the pacing to be slow, that they’ve seen more than enough of the back of Olivier’s neck. But the utterly unpretentious, stripped-down artistry of the Dardennes story-telling delivers a profound payoff that exceeds expectations.