Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) is a carpenter who teaches his trade to young boys. He’s good at his job but a tough taskmaster: impatient when his students make errors, terse when he offers approval. It’s not that he’s a bellowing martinet; he’s more like a withdrawn person going through the motions and given to irritability.
Away from his job, Olivier remains a cipher. His relationship with his ex-wife Magali (Isabella Soupart) is amiable, but when she tells him that she’s pregnant and getting remarried, his first reaction is anger, quickly followed by remorseful congratulations. Obviously there’s something unresolved in their past, something that has left Olivier in emotional limbo.
One day, after some initial reluctance, Olivier takes on a new apprentice, a 16-year-old boy named Francis (Morgan Marrine) who is fresh out of prison after serving a five-year term. From the beginning, Olivier’s attitude toward his new student is one of wary watchfulness. The boy, it turns out, is the key to the puzzle of Olivier’s behavior. Five years earlier, Francis committed a particularly heinous crime, a crime that devastated the carpenter and his wife. The crime is such a traumatic part of the couple’s past that when Olivier tells Magali that he’s taking Francis on as one of his apprentices, she faints. When she recovers, she says, “Nobody does what you’re doing. Why are you doing it?”
“I don’t know,” says Olivier.
To further complicate matters, Francis has no idea who Olivier is or how his youthful crime affected the older man. On the contrary, the teen sees Olivier as something of a father figure and, being a withdrawn type himself, possibly a kindred spirit. His tentative efforts to befriend Olivier are generally met with a silence that is neither a total rebuff nor an acceptance. Having not acted on what would seem to be the obvious first impulse, telling the kid to get the hell out of his life (a more physical reaction would also have been justified), Olivier has sunk further into his state of emotional suspension. Meanwhile, a definite element of suspense has been established. When will Olivier reveal to Francis who he is? And will he exact revenge? If so, how?
The Son is the third feature by the Belgian filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Anyone familiar with their work, especially their second film, Rosetta (shown at the DFT a few years ago), will know that despite the fairly straightforward rendering of the plot, the actual experience of the film is something more unconventional. As with Rosetta, the Dardennes follow their protagonist with a handheld camera, evoking a semi-documentary ambience. The settings are unglamorously utilitarian — the carpentry workshop, Olivier’s meager apartment — the colors are muted and there’s no music on the sound track. The atmosphere is relentlessly bleak.
But the real challenge of the Dardennes’ method is in the story’s rigorously contemplative unfolding. There are long stretches where nothing, or very little, seems to be happening. There are no sudden bursts of scenery, no wide shots of interesting interiors, none of the usual visual enticements we take for granted in a conventional film. The camera doggedly tracks Olivier, often from behind, and when he’s in his apartment doing nothing more than thinking, we may wonder what it is we are being asked to see.
This can sometimes be tedious. It’s a style reminiscent of the late French director Robert Bresson, who also favored flattened melodrama (Rosetta, with its relentless but measured following of a young girl’s descent toward despair and suicide, was often compared to Bresson’s Mouchette), though Bresson’s gaze was more steady and more tied to transcendent ideals. The Dardennes seem more willfully avant-garde and there are times when they come close to being merely pretentious.
But eventually the film reaches a climax whose emotional power is contingent on our having been drawn into Olivier’s life, of having spent time watching him mull over his terrible options. At that point all the narrative hemming and hawing seems justified. The Son may be a difficult movie to watch but sometimes a genuine catharsis can be a difficult place to get to.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, Oct. 13. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].
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