Olivier teaches carpentry to wards of the state, providing boys the foundation for a career when they leave their juvenile homes. When we first meet Olivier in The Son (Le Fils), a soul-shaking Belgian-French drama that unfolds like a thriller, he is a disconcerting figure.
There is something about the way his eyes flicker—with pain? anxiety? rage? sadness?—behind thick-lensed glasses that are just a shade below cartoonish. Our unease is amplified when Olivier (Olivier Gourmet, who won the best actor award at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival) receives information for a new student, whom he promptly asks be reassigned; but Olivier’s interest is sparked, and he stalks the boy through the training center, through the halls and cafeteria and, ultimately, a locker room, where Olivier watches the boy as he sleeps on a bench.
The camera, which for much of the film is stationed directly behind Olivier, here observes him observing the boy, Francis (Morgan Marinne). Does Olivier know this boy? Is he Francis’ illegitimate father? We may even wonder if Olivier is a pedophile, though his students seem to trust and respect him.
Until this moment, Francis has been seen and heard only in fragments; his back as he turns a corner, his voice in the lunch line. When Francis wakes and we see him in full view, parallels emerge between the lanky adolescent and the pudgy, middle-aged man. Like Olivier, Francis’ otherwise unremarkable countenance seems to conceal of well of untapped emotion.
Olivier asks to have Francis routed back to his carpentry apprenticeship, and the connection between them is soon revealed with bracing impacts that extend beyond the man and the boy. The film’s final few minutes are frenetic, heart-wrenching, poignant perfection.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are among our finest and most humanistic filmmakers. They have made a number of exceptional movies, including The Promise (La Promesse) and The Child (L’Enfant), which like The Son are socially conscious films of quiet power.
One thing that separates The Son from the Dardennes’ other works is the manner in which it challenges viewers’ perceptions. The Dardenne brothers understand the suggestive nature of cinema and the preconceptions of moviegoers, and while they don’t push our buttons as aggressively as their contemporary Michael Haneke (Funny Games, Cache), they do force us to confront our own feelings about these characters and their actions (and the actions they may take as the tension builds).
What do we think when we see the plastic tarp and cord placed in the trunk of Olivier’s car before he and Francis set off for a remote lumberyard? How do our opinions of these characters shift as we see how Olivier treats Francis and we learn of Francis’ past? Because the film is so tightly focused and there are no musical cues to prompt our emotions, The Son becomes as much about our responses to what unfolds as the story itself.
Other films have tackled the subject matter explored by The Son, typically with violence and/or histrionics. The Son arrives at its climactic moral decision with muted honesty; Olivier himself admits that he does not understand why he makes the pivotal choice he makes.
The film’s title and Olivier’s profession as a carpenter scream parable, and The Son is certainly that. But it is also ripe to the point of bursting with lessons about cinema and ourselves. There are many great films, but The Son is one of a few that will leave you a better human being for having seen it.