Monday, November 12, 2012
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Son is a quietly moving, remarkably intense film that hides a great deal of churning emotions beneath a deceptively placid exterior. In that, the film mirrors its protagonist, the mild-mannered and reserved Olivier (Olivier Gourmet), who seldom betrays a hint of the doubtless complex emotions bouncing around inside of him. Olivier is a carpentry teacher at a trade school, where he prepares young boys, many of them poor and from troubled homes, for careers as carpenters, gently and patiently instructing them in every small detail of the profession. When the film opens, Olivier receives a new candidate, a boy named Francis (Morgan Marinne), who he initially resists adding to his class, though he takes an immediate interest in the boy, shadowing him around the building and even following him home after class lets out.
The Dardennes build up some mystery and ambiguity around the character of Olivier right from the beginning. With his impassive, doughy face and his eyes obscured by the lenses of his glasses, he's difficult to read, his intentions and thoughts uncertain. There's an ambiguous tension here, in that it's not clear why he's taking such an interest in this boy, pushing him away by refusing to enroll him, and yet unable to resist any opportunity to catch a glimpse of the boy. The Dardennes' camera, hovering over Olivier's shoulder like a restless insect, buzzing around him but seldom catching a full head-on view of him as he stalks the boy, contributes to the somewhat sinister vibe of these scenes, the sense that something strange is going on here. The Dardennes leave the audience to wonder just what kind of man this is, his face filling the screen but his eyes not betraying any hint of what he's up to.
The mystery is eventually resolved, with the Dardennes' typical lack of fanfare, in a conversation between Olivier and his ex-wife Magali (Isabella Soupart). Her few appearances here, evincing an awkward, strained intimacy with Olivier, represent the only times when the film expands its scope beyond Olivier and Francis. For the most part, they are the only characters here, their quiet, inexpressive presences placed squarely at the center of the film. Olivier accepts Francis into his class and begins mentoring the boy, always with a dark secret from the past hanging over their interactions: Olivier knows that Francis, at the age of 11, had killed Olivier and Magali's son.
This knowledge informs the entire rest of the film, although it is never explicitly brought up again until the very end. The Dardennes adopt a restrained observational perspective, their restless handheld camera darting around as Olivier and Francis hesitantly interact, the carpenter teaching the boy, and often just staring at the boy, as though trying to process what he even thinks about this situation, what he thinks of this boy who stole his own boy from him. While Magali, when she finds out that Olivier is teaching Francis, reacts with understandable outrage and confusion — "no one would do this," she tells him, so "why you?" — Olivier seems to react with interest more than anything. It's as though he wants to understand, to make sense of the fact that his son is dead and that this seemingly normal, slightly dim-witted young kid was the cause. At one point, Olivier even steals Francis' keys and visits the boy's empty apartment on a lunch break, walking around the place and lying down on the kid's bed.
The film is intentionally somewhat distanced, despite its constant intimate closeups of Olivier: neither Olivier nor Francis is especially talkative, so most of their scenes together are nearly silent, with the only words exchanged being banal bits of carpentry instruction. The film is surprisingly affecting in its restraint: because the directors resolutely refuse to get inside of either of the central characters, the audience is left to wonder what's going on behind all these wordless, somewhat awkward moments. The tension of the early scenes lingers even after the mystery is solved, the threat of violence always implicit in the film's reserve. Is Olivier's placidness masking a deeper rage that might explode at any moment? Or is his interest in Francis driven simply by a spirit of forgiveness and a desire to understand?
The film's remarkable final sequence, in which Olvier takes Francis to a rural lumber yard on a weekend morning, answers those questions as the pair finally confront, slowly and incrementally, the truth about the pivotal event that ties them together. Even this dramatic climax is treated by the Dardennes with a sense of mundane realism, emphasizing the clumsiness and sloppiness of the chase sequence in which Olivier, after finally revealing his identity to Francis, chases the fleeing boy through the stacks of lumber. Despite how mundane it all looks, the Dardennes build a nearly unbearable tension throughout this whole sequence, the threat of tragedy or violence looming over everything; there's a sense of how fragile things are, how easily the quiet dynamic that had developed between the boy and his mentor throughout the film could suddenly turn ugly. The film's finale is a moving but ambiguous consideration of the possibility of forgiveness, with a wordless understanding passing between a man whose life had been torn apart by senseless violence, and a boy who barely even seems to understand what he did.