The Son Review

Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) teaches carpentry to teenagers at a rehabilitation centre. One day, Francis (Morgan Marinne) is enrolled at the centre. At first Olivier won’t teach him, giving the excuse that the class is already full. But he relents, and Francis joins his class. But something is clearly troubling Olivier about the boy and he struggles to keep a professional distance…

The Son is a film which expects, and rewards, close attention from the audience. Although it’s obvious something is amiss from the opening scene, it’s over half an hour later that we find out exactly what that is: Francis killed Olivier’s son. In other hands this would be the material of a psychological thriller, but the Dardenne Brothers, in their follow-up to the Cannes-winning Rosetta have other intentions. In their hands, The Son becomes a study of grief and its devastating effects. You can see this in the scenes between Olivier and his ex-wife Magali (Isabella Soupart). The tragedy broke up their marriage; she’s now pregnant by her new husband-to-be. Olivier’s sense of his own identity came from being a husband and a father, and now that both of these been taken away from him he struggles to find something to replace them.

Much of this comes across in Olivier Gourmet’s finely detailed performance, which deservedly won him the Best Actor award at the 2002 Cannes Festival. Gourmet had played leading roles for the Dardennes in both La promesse and Rosetta and the brothers wrote The Son especially with him in mind. Almost the whole story of the film is told in his facial expressions and body language. This is the Dardenne Brothers’ fifth dramatic feature, although they have a background in documentary which is very apparent in their technique. They aim for a sort of ultra-realism: long-takes using a very mobile handheld camera, natural light, real locations, no music score. A lot of the time, the camera is held tight in to Olivier, so that part of the frame is blocked out by his shoulders or the side of his head. According to the directors, there are only some eighty shots in the entire film. It’s a technique that requires a little adjustment to, and some may find the plot development slow. The ending is an appropriate one, though it’s anything but Hollywood.

The Son is released in a two-disc set (a DVD-9 and a DVD-5). It’s clearly an international (probably French or Belgian) edition licensed for the UK by Artificial Eye as there are menu options in French, Italian and Dutch as well as English. The discs are encoded for Region 2 only and there are eighteen chapter stops.

As the extras don’t total much more than an hour, and the main feature isn’t especially long, this could have all been contained on a single dual-layer disc. However, the disc manufacturers have gone for as good a picture transfer as possible, not to mention two soundtracks and the subtitle choices, so let’s be grateful that they’ve gone for quality rather than economy. The Son’s DVD transfer is anamorphic, in the correct ratio of 1.66:1. As you might expect given the DVD’s continental origins, the picture is close to flawless, sharp with vibrant colours and strong blacks. There’s some grain visible, but that’s intentional, an effect of the natural-light camerawork. Only some very minor instances of aliasing prevents it getting full marks.

The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1, in the original French language or dubbed into Italian. In keeping with the film’s realist aesthetic, the left and right and surrounds are used for ambience and the occasional directional effect. There’s no music score, and the subwoofer isn’t much in evidence.

On to Disc Two. The bulk of the extras are interviews with the Dardennes (who take turns to answer the questions) and Gourmet, both held by Louis Danvers. Any thoughts that this should really be on the same disc as the feature, thus being a (less expensive) single-disc release, are soon dispelled once you watch these two. These are certainly far more substantial interviews than the collection of soundbites you often find on DVDs, as the running times (Dardennes, 32:23; Gourmet, 33:21) indicate. Between them, they cover every aspect of the film from inception to filming and editing. There’s no commentary – which for many people, myself included, would have to be subtitled anyway – but this will certainly do its place. The interviews, conducted on video, are full-frame. They are divided into named chapters (Dardennes, seven; Gourmet, ten) each selectable from a menu, or you can play all if you prefer.

There are filmographies for the Dardennes, Gourmet and Morgan Marinne…and full marks to the DVD producers for compiling their own lists rather than just simply lifting them from the IMDB. The stills gallery consists of twenty-five colour images, navigable by a simple back-and-forth method. Finally, there are trailers for The Son (1:30), Rosetta (0:57) and La promesse (1:11). All are in non-anamorphic 1.66:1 and by the usual standards of arthouse-movie advertising are remarkably concise – see the running times!

It’s nice to see an out-and-out arthouse movie getting the two-disc special edition treatment. Some other two-discers have a second feature included, for example Artificial Eye’s previous edition of Rosetta and La promesse and their forthcoming set of Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies and Damnation. That isn’t the case here, but two discs can still be justified. One would be possible, but either picture quality or extras would have suffered. Either way, this is an excellent presentation of one of the best films, and one of the finest leading performances, of the year.

9 out of 10
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