We all make decisions that – to others – don’t make sense. Brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne may not solely work with that subject matter, but it’s one they have mined for decades.
Critical darlings that gained prominence with 1996’s La Promesse, the Dardennes make morality tales, almost exclusively about those on the lower-tier of the economic divide. Their heroes and heroines make decisions that bewilder, yet never for a moment feel untrue. In The Kid with a Bike it’s a single woman’s thought to take in an aimless boy seeking a sense of normalcy. With L’enfant it’s a father deciding that the sale of his newborn would be best.
For 2002’s The Son, the unfathomable decision plays like a mystery, at least upon first viewing. The Dardennes introduce us to Olivier (Olivier Gourmet), a man who is precise in his physicality. Olivier teaches carpentry at a training center made up of youths fresh out of various juvenile detention centers. We enter this world as the camera tilts up to bring us a view right behind Olivier’s head, as hammers pound away. What sounds like a string-section can be heard, but this is the Dardennes, and any kind of score is a rarity, with not a moment of one to be found in The Son. The noise is that a buzzsaw-esque machine, squealing through the hallways as young men, boys really, learn their craft
Into this routine enters the plot stirrer; a young blonde boy named Francis (Morgan Marinne), but even his face we don’t see for the majority of the opening act. What we do witness is Olivier, a calm, collected man, fidgety and flailing at the arrival of Francis. Where he sternly – though importantly not with malice – advises one of his pupils on a woodwork technique and has a gait that is almost mechanical, the sight or opportunity to catch a glimpse of Francis leads him to hide around corners or leap onto cabinets.
The why of all this creates a great tension, only to be doubled-down on and recalibrated when it is revealed. Francis, now 16 in age, accidentally killed Olivier’s son fives years previous. When this fact comes to light around the halfway mark, the Dardennes leave us with new questions. The first is why is Olivier spending any time, let alone seemingly helping, Francis. The second, and seemingly more traditionally cinematic, is what does Olivier plan to do to Francis. Surely, a confrontation will come and we’ve been trained to expect something of its outcome, with rage and perhaps a few drops of blood to come too.
This is something the Dardennes know. While never quite teasing that this is the direction of their story, up to the last few minutes, the threat of Olivier snapping and ending the life of Francis is given credence, with our protagonist at one point literally having his handed around the young man’s throat. The Son is not about revenge though. The Son is about forgiveness and understanding. As per usual, the Dardennes set their stories, alongside addicts, thieves and the desperate. Additionally, grace is there too; another staple.
The Dardennes make no speeches with The Son. Everything is there in the actions, not the dialogue. Characters don’t come up to Olivier and call him a nice, decent fellow. Instead, this is learned almost nonchalantly when he plays his various answering machine messages. The camera doesn’t linger on the machine or have Olivier give a deep listen. Instead, he preps dinner as a series of calls come through, with one of them being a kid asking if it’d be okay to stay over at Olivier’s place again. The message is not a big one. The boy on the phone isn’t howling or even crying. Olivier’s response isn’t to hop to the phone or drive to the kid’s place. Every beat is measured and the stillness breathes authenticity.
At no point does Olivier say, “Francis, here is why I’ve decided to aid you in your future despite the pain you’ve made for my past.” One gets a sense that Olivier, at first, merely wants to keep an eye on the lad. The first viewing comes with Francis being an enigma, as repeat outings show the depths of Olivier’s conflicted feelings. Not out to build a bond, it develops as Francis admires his mentor’s skills, particularly at being able to judge the exact measurement of a distance sans ruler. A child who clearly never had a proper parent, the mimicry soon follows. In a terrific scene, the Dardennes feature Olivier alone in their frame, using a spray to rid his clothes of debris from another round of woodwork. Olivier brushes the remaining scraps off his shirt before moving to a sink to wash his hands, the camera following suit. As he lathers up, that same spray can be heard; Francis has a new father-figure. The look on Olivier’s face says so much.
The Dardennes’ reliably quiet, though deliberate, directing and writing is the biggest key to the success of The Son. Gourmet’s performance is not to be overlooked though. The Dardennes style is one almost befitting of Academy ratio framing, with the actor’s face often being the only thing in the frame. As such, Gourmet’s responses mean all the more. It is one of the finest pieces of acting this century has provided; subtle and profound. The shift in emotional tenor that can be witnessed in Gourmet’s eyes or posture says all you need to know about his character. Late in the picture, Olivier is prying Francis for information, not about what he did. Olivier knows what occurred. He needs to find out how Francis feels about. When Francis says he “Obviously,” regrets his actions, Olivier inquires why. As Francis declares that he lost five years of his life to the incident, Gourmet stiffens up, followed by an icy, haunting glare. Without his performance, The Son would not be able to function as precisely and delicately as it manages to do.
And delicate is the right word. For a film to have the perceived realism as this one achieves, gestures can’t be overdone, just as the writing can’t. For all of the aplomb the Dardennes have garnered for their direction, with its over-the-shoulder nature and you-are-there sensation, their skill at, for lack of a better term, playing it cool is just as amazing. In The Son, Isabella Soupart’s Magali, the ex-wife of Olivier, might best display this notion. Again, the Dardennes don’t call attention to the former couple’s status; it’s revealed through conversation and not an expository dump. Two people talk and it’s clear that they are no longer married and have managed to remain friendly. Magali is concerned for Olivier, something revealed in how she tells him of her pregnancy and how she tenderly smiles at him through out the interaction. Her early inclusion and friendliness is provided to later play-off the Francis reveal. However, when this occurs, theatrics don’t ensue. There is no shouting match or faucets full of tears. What we get is more character detail, particularly with Olivier’s response to Magali’s question of why he would work with Francis. His response, “To teach him carpentry.”
The Dardennes know that there are things in life, decisions, that can’t ever really be explained. There are mysteries in every single day for every single person. On occasions they are miniscule; like what to eat for lunch. Now and again they genuinely matter. They are life changing. These are the mysteries the Dardennes explore, but exploration isn’t the same as giving answers. That pathway is for those that believe life can be tied together into a neat structure. That pathway is a fiction.