The Son Review
Present-day Belgium. Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) teaches carpentry at a youth rehabilitation centre. One day, Francis (Morgan Marinne) is enrolled at the centre. At first Olivier refuses to teach him, but later relents. But who is the young man?
The Dardenne Brothers’ follow-up to their 1999 Cannes prizewinner Rosetta is a film that makes quite a few demands on the audience. You do need to pay attention as some vital information is left for the audience to infer rather than being spelled out. Although we know from the outset that there’s something problematic about Francis, it isn’t until half an hour in that we hear why, from Olivier’s ex-wife Magali (Isabelle Soupart): Francis killed their son.
In other hands, The Son would be a straightforward psychological thriller. The Dardennes have other things on their mind: this is a “miniplot” where on the surface very little happens, with all the action taking place inside the protagonist’s mind. You have to watch for every single nuance of expression on Gourmet’s face and body language. It’s a finely detailed performance that deservedly won him the Best Actor prize at Cannes. It all leads up to a final scene that plays out in a decidedly un-Hollywood way.
The Dardennes’ films take place in contemporary Belgium, on real locations with mostly non-professional casts. Much attention is paid to the texture of day-to-day life, in particular a sense how someone’s job defines him or her. More than most directors, the Dardennes make films about working people, and we see Olivier’s carpentry trade in some detail. You can also detect the influence of Robert Bresson in the pared-down realism, the use of amateur actors, and the spiritual concerns – in this case, specifically that of forgiveness. Where the two brothers differ from fellow realists is in their camera style: almost always hand-held, getting in close to their leading actors, so we get to see the world through their eyes, as nearly as possible. If anything, their technique in The Son is a refinement of that in Rosetta, due to the use of a lighter-weight camera allowing even tighter close-ups than before.
The Son won’t be for everyone. Many will find the film intolerably slow and it probably is overlong. It will reward the patient viewer, but somehow it manages to be less affecting than Rosetta. The Dardennes certainly make few compromises to an audience, resulting in a film that has to be watched on its own terms or not at all, but you have to wonder how much further they can go.