THE SON

Written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

With Olivier Gourmet, Morgan Mariane and Isabella Soupart

Distributed by New Yorker Films

****
So far, THE SON has received only the most cursory American release. Back in January, it came and went from New York theaters in only 2 weeks. (I'm reviewing it now in the hope of encouraging readers in other cities to go see it or rent the eventual DVD.) The best film I've seen so far this year (and it would have been #3 on last year's Top 10 list), it takes the Dardenne brothers' cinema verité-based style to new heights.
Robert. Bresson managed to get a great performance out of a donkey, while they get one out of Gourmet's neck, glasses and profile.

While adding Christian overtones to the Dardenne brothers' work, THE SON is  firmly grounded in the material world. In fact, it's practically a documentary about carpentry and woodworking.  You can learn how to carry planks up a ladder from it.  When storing them, it's important to leave small gaps  so air can dry them out. Beech wood is best used for tools and furniture, while Oregon pine is a soft wood. And of course, you can judge a tree's age by its rings.

Introduced by a shot of his neck (to the tune of machinery grinding away offscreen), Olivier (Gourmet, who won the best actor award at Cannes for this film) works as a carpentry teacher at a training school for troubled teenage boys. He gets along well with all his pupils but becomes fascinated when a 16-year-old boy named Francis (Mariane) arrives. His seemingly irrational obsession grows. Olivier starts following Francis around. Meanwhile, he becomes furious when his ex-wife Magali (Soupart) tells him that she's pregnant. When she hears that Olivier is working with Francis, she grows angry, revealing the secret behind Olivier's interest in the boy.

The camera movements of THE SON are synched to Olivier's mood and pace. When he races around the workshop in the opening scenes, it follows. When he relaxes or simply slows down, it also follows. At first sight, this style of cinematography might simply look like another example of the shakycam aesthetic. (The Dardenne brothers' first feature, LA PROMESSE, was released in the U.S. shortly before the impact of the Dogme 95 manifesto.) While LA PROMESSE  aimed for a documentary feel and achieved it, ROSETTA and THE SON use it to subtly aestheticize reality. No less than Lars von Trier, the Dardenne brothers use a "naturalistic" style as counterpart to their material. As with Gaspar Noe's IRREVERSIBLE, the aggressive cinematography works as a device to forestall the introduction of a conventional narrative.

 Dwelling on Olivier's physicality, THE SON makes his motivations unclear. He makes a number of seemingly  inexplicable acts. Why does he scream at his ex-wife for choosing "this particular day" to tell him that she's pregnant? Why does he ask for a used knife in the lunchroom cafeteria? There's an easy explanation for his bizarre behavior: he's a pedophile,  physically attracted to Francis. It's not the answer, but his behavior continues to seem odd. Reaction shots of his impassive profile seem absurd, especially since we rarely get to see his entire face. Is he apathetic or deeply thoughtful? In the press kit, the directors say that "the storyline is the character...maybe not the character, but the actor himself...His body, the nape of his neck, his face, his eyes lost behind his glasses. We could not imagine the film based on another body, another actor."

The plot of THE SON is also unimaginable without the Dardenne brothers' careful rhythmic modulation. Its initially agitated camera movements first establish a suspenseful mood, also enlivening the scenes of carpentry. No thriller (to say the least), the film  builds on that initial mood all the way through a final 40-minute sequence in which Olivier and Francis eventually confront each other.  Their other films' political content is more elusive here (although making any film about working-class life may be an implicitly political gesture.) Instead, there's a careful devotion to the texture of everyday life and a commitment to discovering revelations within it. If it devotes so much attention to the mundane, this allows for a powerful - if ambiguous - epiphany at the end. On the surface, they deny easy catharsis; with repeated viewings, they achieve something much stronger. In anyone else's hands,  a shot of two people gripping a wood plank could never  be so powerful.