Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 17, 2003 11:33 am 
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Miraculous plainness

In the Dardenne brothers' "Le Fils" ("The Son"), Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) teaches carpentry in a trade school for wayward boys that's a transition from juvenile detention to life in society. The camera focuses on Olivier, tightly on his head and shoulders, relentlessly on him. He walks around the workshop and school. First he makes sure a board is run through a chain saw properly, then he denies a new boy entry into his class, then surprisingly he sneaks around, running, breathless, to peek at the boy as he sits in the office. The boy, Francis (Morgan Marinne), wanted carpentry, but is put in metal shop. Later Olivier goes back to the office after a short period of spying on Francis and says he can come into carpentry after all. Thus begins a relationship between Olivier and this boy that seems to have odd overtones.

We see Olivier at home. He has a back problem and does sit-ups to strengthen his abdominal muscles. He is visited by his shyly smiling ex-wife, Magali (Isabella Soupart), who is to remarry, and will have a child. Olivier is alone, immersed in his work, of which he says only "it makes me feel useful." What we learn is that this new boy in the carpentry class killed their son. Magali is shocked to hear of his appearance: Olivier doesn't tell her the truth: that he has taken the boy into his class. Olivier has decided to nurture the boy; to spy on him; to confront him. It's all of those things.

The Dardennes, who were once documentarians and have made the dramas "La Promesse"(1996) and "Rosetta" (the 1999 Palme d'Or at Cannes), are relentless in their dedication to the mundane lives of working people. The intense narrative focus, which abjures any extraneous amusement or aesthetic flourishes, and the closeness of the handheld camera work, make constructing a wooden box or playing a game of arcade soccer or nearly falling off a ladder into momentous events. Every scene is so bluntly clear and in-your-face it almost hurts to watch. But it's a good hurt -- the hurt of passionately committed filmmaking.

There is no music, only the loud sounds of machinery and woodworking as a background for human voices. The Dardennes show some of the same ability to use a dogged devotion to an everyday reality to get at the essence of their characters and to dissect profound moral dilemmas that we also see in Bruno Dumont's Zen poems of dead-end French provincial life, "La Vie de Jésus" (1997) and "L'Humanité" (1999). One might also think of Rossellini or Bresson. But the Dardennes are Belgian. Olivier Gourmet, who stars in all three of the Dardennes' films, has a harsh, wooden manner. He rarely does anything but bark commands. His glasses hide his eyes.

In "The Son," Olivier is the essence of fairness. Imagine losing your son, and taking his young murderer as your protégé. Magali's reaction is hysterical when she discovers this. But Olivier calms her and proceeds with the trip to his brother's lumberyard, where Francis will learn a lesson in recognizing types of wood and where the final showdown (though it is really a beginning) will occur. Neither Gourmet, who has acted in many films, nor Marinne, who has not, seems like an actor. Both have a stolid opacity and an independence that make you accept them as real, mysterious human beings.

Carpentry is an ideal métier for Olivier. Wood expands and contracts: the rules aren't absolute. But the work is honest and the job must be done right. Olivier is experienced, firm, and fair, and his eye can judge the exact distance between two points. No wonder Francis is diffident and respectful toward his teacher and quickly asks him, on this trip to the lumberyard, to be his guardian. For all his gruffness, Olivier is a great and good man. (Interesting that as the father in "La Promesse," Gourmet used much the same manner to convey a man who was cruel and dishonest.) Neither man nor boy is at all good looking or charismatic; both are unsmiling and determined in manner. But both of them earn our profound sympathy and respect in this astonishing, rigorous, humanistic film.

A theft that led to killing, intimacy with the murderer of your own son: these are primal, almost Oedipal situations, and "The Son" for all its ordinariness contains the stuff of high tragedy. Olivier's bluntness and strength and the boy's eager innocence allow truths to come out quickly. The early scenes may seem grating. The tight, jittery camera work is almost sick-making. But the later scenes are more and more moving and cathartic. At the end Francis and Olivier stand side by side in the lumberyard, dirty, wet, exhausted, and speechless. Nothing further needs to be said. Few films leave one with a fuller sense of completion and resolution. It's a superb moment. "The Son" teaches a very profound moral lesson: a wrong can be healed by returning it with goodness. For all the seeming roughness of the technique and the lack of flourishes, the effect is masterful. Gourmet received the prize for best actor at Cannes last year for his performance.

March 12, 2003

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