“The Son” (“Le Fils”)
New Yorker Films
Written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Produced by Denis Freyd, Jean-Pierre Dardenne and
Starring Olivier Gourmet, Morgan Marinne, Isabella
Soupart, Remy Renaud, Nassim Hassaini, Kevin Leroy
and Felicien Pitsaer
“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
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
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.