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Simplicity and Poignancy in ‘The Son’
One of Last Year’s Best Films Finally Makes it To SLC


Simplicity and Poignancy in ‘The Son’
One of Last Year’s Best Films Finally Makes it To SLC
by Jeremy Mathews

“The Son” (“Le Fils”)
New Yorker Films
Written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Produced by Denis Freyd, Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
Starring Olivier Gourmet, Morgan Marinne, Isabella Soupart, Remy Renaud, Nassim Hassaini, Kevin Leroy and Felicien Pitsaer
Not Rated

(out of four)

“The Son” punctuates quiet moments of human desperation with unmatched moments of emotional release. Its power comes from observation and restraint that could make you miss one of 2003’s most powerful films if you aren’t paying attention.

Belgian filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne wrote and directed the film with a style that defies conventional narrative expectations. At times we expect a violent machinery accident or homosexual misconduct between a man and his student, but the Dardennes offer nothing so predictable as they follow the life of a good but conflicted man.

Like they did in 1999’s “Rosetta,” the brothers use a hand-held documentary style to follow one character’s life, using no scenes without the main character. This demanding style earned lead acting awards at Cannes both in 1999 and in 2002 for Olivier Gourmet’s work as Olivier, a distraught carpentry teacher with displaced love in “The Son.”

Gourmet plays a man unaware of the motives behind his actions. He isn’t always sure if he wants to understand, replace or avenge the absence in his life, as the meaning of the title constantly gains new significance. Olivier possesses wisdom and humanity to pass on, and he stopped working with his brother’s lumber business so that he could teach kids the trade in a rehabilitation center. Despite the camera’s tendency not to shoot his reaction straight on, Gourmet creates a mysterious character who is ultimately wise beyond his feelings.

A revelation well into the film translates the man’s conflicts—it isn’t merely an act of manipulation. The characters only have more dimension on a second viewing, creating an equally satisfying experience to the poignant surprises that come the first time through.

The film begins among the loud clanks of lumber in the center’s carpentry workshop. Despite the noise, there is no great drama amid the chaos, just a man teaching his students to do their jobs properly. After looking at the papers of a prospective new student, he rejects the 16-year-old and sends him to weld because he’s already too busy. He soon runs to the stairwell to let out despair that has no clear motivation. He then stands to see over the lockers and watches the boy sleep. That night, he calls in and says that he can start teaching the boy, if he’s still interested. The large implications of apparently small moments soon become apparent.

The camera shoots over Olivier’s shoulder most of the time, seeing the world from his point of view. His position as a role model to the boy grows and leads to scenes that combine a demand for answers to tragedies and empathy. One night after coincidentally meeting the boy outside a sandwich shop, he demonstrates his ability to visually measure distances almost as accurately as his tools.

Olivier knows more than the boy does about the boy’s crime from five years ago, creating a dynamic in which the boy’s responses mean much more to the man than the boy realizes.

The film demands viewing more than it requires interpretation. The Dardennes manage to make their process look simple, like they’re telling the story. In fact, the film’s unforced insights are some of the most difficult to produce in cinema. Without typical plot concoctions, “The Son” reveals a man who takes a second chance to affect the future generation and to forgive.

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