Lost in the Movies: The Son (Best of the 21st Century?)

The Son (Best of the 21st Century?)

#85 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series in which I view, for the first time, some of the most critically acclaimed films of the previous decade.

Olivier is one of those men you can’t picture outside of the workplace. They’re very good at their job, often stern without being cruel, dignified yet something of a personal cipher. In Olivier’s case, when we see him off the job (he’s a carpenter whose task is to train apprentices) we discover that he lives alone, never takes off his uniform (blue overalls), and apparently does not watch television or read – leisure time is spent doing sit-ups. As played by Olivier Gourmet, and photographed by the Dardenne brothers (whose penchant for handheld close-ups here borders on self-parody, so claustrophobic is their cinematography), Olivier is initially hard to read, and one wonders if there is indeed anything to read, or if he’s simply content to be uncomplicated. There is, and he isn’t – or maybe he would be, but he hasn’t the chance to be simple. Having experienced a tragedy, and now forced to rub his nose in reminders of his loss, Olivier begins behaving erratically – although only we, in the audience know this; he’s still firmly enough in control to hide from public view his odd behavior (running through the shop, peeking around corners, leafing through files). Until a conversation with his ex-wife (Isabella Soupart) some ways into the movie we are not sure what lies behind all the eccentricities. Given the title, we suspect secret filial relations between Olivier and Francis (Morgan Marinne), a heavily medicated carpenter-in-training, whom Olivier initially refuses before accepting as an apprentice and then proceeding to stalk. But Francis is not Olivier’s son. Read no further if you want the film to take you by surprise. There are certainly benefits to both approaches (knowing who Francis is enables you invest more in Olivier’s strange behavior) but you can always go back and re-watch the movie with this knowledge in mind, so I suggest taking a break if you haven’t seen The Son.

You've crossed the jump now, so you've either seen the film or don't care about spoilers. If the former, what did you think - or rather, what did you feel? Olivier's revelation, that Francis is the boy who (at the tender age of 11) killed his own son, certainly adds emotional resonance to the material but the Dardennes stubbornly avoid sentiment, taking a stance at once frustrating and rewarding. On the one hand, Olivier opens up before us - no longer a blandly creepy stalker, he becomes a soul who's come through the other end of tremendous agony, surprised to find himself stronger and more open when subjected to what should be new torments. True, his motivations remain muddy but he himself, casting a gaze in a bathroom mirror, seems as perplexed by his proclivities as we are. With Olivier easier to read, our attention shifts to Francis - what's going on in that mind of his? Droopy-eyed due to sleeping pills, having learned the value of silent withdrawal behind bars, the boy nonetheless has a certain rawness to his demeanor which draws us, and Olivier, in. Tough as his life may have been, he is not as controlled as Olivier, and as he carries beams of wood through the shop, playfully asks Olivier to measure various distances, and casually asks the older man to be his "guardian", the boy is at once guileless and sensitive, at least to his own needs. Confronted with his crime, he grows coarse, selfish. Asked if he regrets the killing (before he realizes his victim's relation to Olivier) Francis seems perplexed: of course, he lost five years of his life! No mention is made of the victim's suffering or that of his family. Indeed, when Francis finds out who Olivier is, his reaction is to flee, hide, shout out excuses ("I paid the price!") and hurl planks of wood at Olivier's head.

The ground shifts under Olivier's feet, though it's been moving uneasily beneath him throughout the film. Much has been made of Olivier's professional aptitude - he can determine a distance, to the centimeter, by eye; he carefully and precisely guides his students through their tasks; he can identify the varieties of wood through sight and touch. His professionalism and craftsmanship are anchors keeping him from drifting too far in the wild sea, but Francis' gangly presence represents a gale-force wind which even Olivier can not withstand. Initially, he resists by adapting - modifying his routines and perceptions by taking the boy in, rather than by ignoring him. A commentator on IMDb astutely observes that "Olivier gives the killing a place in his life of rituals and precision. There is no room for emotions, just perfectly fitting constructions." Yet this final explosion of fury and fear on Francis' part seems finally to break Olivier's reserve. Throughout the film, he has been steeling himself to accept the boy's friendly overtures, to forgive or at least accept his existence and that of his crime. But Francis' reaction turns the tables and puts Olivier on the defensive when he least expects to be. The next thing he knows he's pinned Francis down in the dirt outside the warehouse, his fingers wrapped around the teenager's throat in an ironic turnaround (Francis killed Olivier's son by strangling him to death in a fit of frightened defensiveness, when the unseen boy grabbed him as he was stealing a car radio). When Olivier finally surrenders, returning to the wood he understands so much better, quietly loading into the back of his truck, a broken man - then the prodigal son-killer returns and quietly helps his mentor load up the car. No words are exchanged, in work their flaws and misunderstandings are sublimated by the simplicity (physically complex but mentally straightforward) of their task.

Work is central to understanding not just The Son's story, but its very aesthetic. Huge swathes of the film, probably its great majority, are devoted to documenting the carpenters at work. But we see less of their employment - the objects they're crafting, the wood they're cutting - than of them. The important thing is not what they're doing but the solid ground and peace of mind it offers them. Work also offers a chance for communion, not emotional communion but a physical one which proves a surprisingly satisfying substitute. The questions about Olivier and Francis which arise throughout the film - judgements which hover on the verge of our consciousness (is Olivier just torturing himself? does he want to take revenge on Francis? is Francis simply a shallow, selfish sociopath, unworthy of Olivier's compassion?) dissipate in the hardheaded contemplation of practical activity. Perhaps Olivier's seemingly altruistic motives are muddied, but when he loads up the truck his actions have a comforting directness which chases doubts away. Maybe Francis is evil, or entirely amoral, but as he exhibits genuine wonder at Olivier's mathematical prowess, or combs through his book to determine whether Oregon pine is soft or hard wood, moral complexities are subsumed in simple study. Work is the perfect action for the Dardennes to observe; on the other hand, when we are confronted with something more difficult to assess, say when Olivier steals Francis' key, sneaks into his room, and lies down on his bed, our desires for more insight are frustrated.

Here is where reactions differ, and this brings me back to my initial question. What do you feel? We can speculate about Olivier and Francis all we want, but in the end do we experience their emotions ourselves, or share in a piece of them? Do the filmmakers even want us to, or do they hope to keep us distant? Roger Ebert, in one his finest, most expressive reviews, writes "If you were spellbound, moved by its terror and love, struck that the visual style is the only possible one for this story, then let us agree that rarely has a film told us less and told us all, both at once." He eloquently adds that "this movie is only possible because of the way it was made, and would have been impossible with traditional narrative styles. Like rigorous documentarians, the Dardenne brothers follow Olivier, learning everything they know about him by watching him. They do not point, underline or send signals by music. There are no reaction shots because the entire movie is their reaction shot. The brothers make the consciousness of the Olivier character into the auteur of the film." I find cinema verite to be one of the richest forms of cinema, yet I confess I was left mostly on the outside of this film. I admired its dedication to self-imposed discipline, its avoidance of cliche and sentiment, its fine-tuned, hidden sense of control amidst all the wobbly shakiness and grungy slips of focus. Intellectually, I was spurred to reflect on Olivier's and Francis' inner states and contemplate what was making them tick. But I could not really get inside of them myself - unlike "mahlerfan" (in another excellent review, this one on IMDb), who writes, "He isn't pretty to look at, he isn't particularly heroic, he has little sense of humour and his manner is frequently terse, but just watch what he does in the quiet moments! Watch how he tells you everything you need to know with just his body language and his eyes."

As I've indicated, I felt I understood his thought process and, on the surface, his emotional state but I wanted to feel a bit more of the raw confusion that must have been coursing through his mind. Part of the problem, for me, was that the Dardennes seem more interested in the back of Olivier's neck than his "body language" and his "eyes" - in the moments we do get a good look at Olivier, I felt more of a connection to him, but these moments are fleeting. Ebert speaks of "rigorous documentarians" but the subjects of documentaries exist in a twilight zone between consciousness of the camera and fidelity to their own ingrained identities; the world the Dardennes show us is a created one and so, fighting through the thickets of rough technique we arrive not at reality but the remnants of creation. The Dardennes seem to spend as much time avoiding as observing, and this is where I felt myself slipping off the emotional tracks. Yet sometimes the more we work, the greater the rewards (an appropriate observation for a film so concerned with business). Perhaps further visits will open up new insight and a greater connection to the material for me. I certainly hope so. It's entirely possible that the Dardennes never intended for us to "relate" to the characters, rather to observe them from a distance, with curiosity and perhaps sympathy but not an empathy which can only be earned by direct experience. However, this does not seem to have been the film Ebert or mahlerfilm saw, and ultimately I hope they're right, because that is the film I'd rather see too.

Previous: Mooladé
Next: Waltz with Bashir

Read the comments on Wonders in the Dark, where this review was originally published.


The Taxi Driver said...

If The Son is only at number 85 you must have some real treasures still to come. Look forward to seeing the rest of the entires.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks for the interest, Mike - hope you enjoy the rest of the series. However, I'm actually moving down the list not up (so check out the previous entries for "higher-ups"), plus these are how they're ranked on the list I'm working from, a list that calculates (based on year-end top 10s and other criteria) the "most acclaimed films of the decade." So the ranking doesn't reflect my take on the films, but a wider critical consensus. Here's a link for further explanation:


R. Hendriks said...

Thanks for your review!

You offer yourself an important key for experiencing, and perhaps as well as 'understanding' The Son:

"The important thing is not what they're doing but the solid ground and peace of mind it offers them."

In my opinion, BOTH what the characters are doing, and the solid ground and peace of mind it offers them, are revealing.

The Dardennes go beyond the Hollywood mythology of a character's arc, and have developed their own ways of telling a story on film.

The tension between those two characters is reflected in the whole of their bodies, their body language. For a long time, it fuels questions, and then these questions, for me, become philosophical: what would I do, how would I react, what would I initiate.

To me it is astonishing, the ways the Dardennes show the resolution of this tension. No grand gestures, no 'set piece' needed, just the two of them coming to terms with the tragedy of their past. The final struggle is that resolution.

The Son, for me, is one of the best films ever made.

In their later film, Le Gamin au Velo, their is a great line for the 'mother' in that film, when the 'son' bumps into her life, literally grabs hold of her: "You can hold me, but not that rough".

It's a line that is so subtle, and it perfectly tells us everything about the Dardennes humanism. A true quest for redemption hurts, and the healing opportunities are there in every 'simple' moment, of everyday life.

Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces, is another great film about someone's quest for redemption. It's a great American film of the '70s and it is very dear to me. That's a perfect classic Hollywood character arc.

But for me, still, The Son beats that film.

Cheers, Rudolph

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Rudolph - the Dardennes are a challenge for me as I respect what they're doing, yet it doesn't seem to work as well for me as for others. I think I'm fonder of the older neorealist style which took a more respectful physical difference (and perhaps less of an emotional distance) from its characters. But I still have only seen a couple of their films (both of which admired and found absorbing) and their influence on the current crop of young filmmakers has been huge so I look forward to seeing more from them. Always a pleasure to get feedback, especially on older pieces - hope you stick around!

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