NYFF 2002 REVIEW: Sophisticated Storytelling in a Modest Town; Dardenne Brothers Return with "The Son"
by David Sterritt and Mikita Brottman/indieWIRE
“The Son” confirms what everyone interested in serious cinema has known since at least 1996, when “La Promesse” made its indelible debut. Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne are pioneering a new kind of filmmaking that’s as fresh and distinctive as it is formally innovative, psychologically sophisticated, and politically savvy to its core.
The main character of “The Son” is Olivier, a carpenter who looks the part — always wrapped in a woodworker’s leather belt, constantly eyeing the world through well-shined spectacles as if some off-kilter detail might need adjusting or repairing when least expected. He works hard with his hands, helped by the young assistants he supervises in his shop.
The drama kicks into gear when a teenager named Francis applies for an apprenticeship. Olivier turns him down, but his interest in the boy is immediately clear — and mysterious, since we don’t know why this painfully ordinary lad should catch his attention so quickly and completely. Other people also figure in Olivier’s life, and we learn about them as we wait for his relationship with Francis to become clear. The most important is his former wife Magali, now involved with a new boyfriend, pregnant, and coping with family problems of her own. Olivier’s attitude toward Magali is complicated — sometimes he reaches out to her, sometimes he fends her off.
Eventually the nature of the three-way bond between her, Olivier, and Francis starts to emerge. Five years ago, the young son of Olivier and Magali was killed in the course of a petty crime, and Francis was responsible. Fresh out of juvenile jail and not very bright to begin with, Francis has no idea his prospective employer is the father of the child he killed. Olivier himself is caught between conflicting impulses — toward an outburst of rage and retribution on one hand, toward the need for healing and regeneration on the
other. Unsure how to think or what to do, he keeps Francis within view and waits to see what course of action his heart and soul will dictate.
On a technical level, the Dardennes’ most recognizable trademark is a camera style that zeroes in on a character and hangs in mercilessly close for most of the film’s duration. This kinetic approach fills the screen with details of facial demeanor, bodily gesture, and psychological subtext that conventional movies rarely capture.
On narrative and thematic levels, the Dardennes belong to the new wave of French-language cinema that strives to take storytelling out of big cities into the more modest places where most people live and work. “The Son” follows this trend as scrupulously as “La Promesse” and “Rosetta” did, unfolding its intensive story in everyday settings devoid of the urban dynamism we take for granted in many modern films.
Also important to the Dardennes is the central place of work in most people’s lives. This isn’t new to French cinema — the great Francois Truffaut prided himself on showing characters at work in nearly all his films — but it has gained fresh resonance in recent works like Laurent Cantet’s fine “Human Resources” and “Time Out,” and now in the Dardennes’ tough-minded movies. Olivier is a man who lives to work, and it’s no coincidence that the psychological and spiritual journey he takes has its starting point in his woodworking shop and its climax in a lumberyard where he and Francis finally begin to confront each other in earnest.
The kind of body-intensive filmmaking cultivated by the Dardennes would be impossible to pull off if they didn’t have equally strong skills in selecting and directing their actors. “The Son” gains a great deal of its power from Olivier Gourmet‘s finely tuned portrayal of Olivier, one of the few times in recent memory when a character and a performance are so utterly intertwined that it’s hard to imagine them apart. Gourmet has become an increasingly familiar face, with roles in pictures including “Read My Lips” and “Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train” as well as “Rosetta” and “La Promesse” by the Dardennes themselves. Olivier in “The Son” is his signature role to date, earning him the best-actor award at this year’s Cannes film festival and marking him as a talent of vast potential.
That said, “The Son” is ultimately shaped by the sensibilities of the Dardenne brothers, who are no strangers to the Cannes winners circle — their “Rosetta” took the Golden Palm in 1999 and earned a best-actress award for Emilie Duquenne as a downtrodden teenager at the end of her rope. “The Son” benefits from virtuoso cinematography by Alain Marcoen, inventive editing by Marie H