After watching two films by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, La Promesse (1996) and this one, I can safely say that I’m not a huge fan. I certainly appreciate their films, but they underwhelm me and I suspect that many mainstream moviegoers agree with me. The lack of music, the slow pace and the unremarkable storylines are bound to try the patience of most multiplex visitors. A movie by the Dardenne brothers doesn’t target those people in the first place… but mainstream audiences might get something out of this one anyway.
Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) is a carpenter in Liège who takes on troubled teen boys and teaches them his profession. He reluctantly agrees to let another boy become his apprentice even though his plate really is full, but this one is special. Olivier is visibly shaken by the boy’s arrival, but treats the newcomer like everyone else. The boy is 16-year-old Francis (Morgan Marinne) and he pays attention, does what he’s told and even tries to bond with his teacher. When Olivier tells Magali (Isabella Soupart), his ex-wife, who his new apprentice is she doesn’t take it well.
They both carry a grief caused by Francis and Magali can’t understand why Olivier would take the kid on and not confront him with what he’s done. Actually, Olivier himself is not sure of what he’s trying to accomplish… but the time will come when he chooses to tell Francis who he really is.
Imagination running wild
I’m not going to reveal exactly what Francis did, because that is meant to be a surprise later in the film. Initially, the Dardenne brothers have you wondering why Olivier is so concerned with the boy’s arrival. Is he Olivier’s son… does all this have something to do with sexual abuse? You let your imagination run wild, but when we learn the truth it is a minor shock and a sad affair indeed. After the revelation, audiences are meant to wonder what Olivier will do next with this boy who is entirely in his control. The themes of the story have to do with revenge, redemption and forgiveness but it doesn’t fully explore them, only hint at them. The directors want us to ponder the themes and not have everything served right under our noses. Their films are chock-full of violent emotions, but they’re always carefully and starkly depicted.
The structure of the screenplay is simple and undramatic (except for a final confrontation between Olivier and Francis); it’s the way the story is told that matters, not plot twists. The directors pay much attention to Olivier’s craft; expect to learn a thing or two about wood and carpentry. They clearly admire the art of creating with your hands, but it also becomes the most important tool Olivier can use to strike up a connection with the boy.
The film was allegedly inspired by the 1993 Jamie Bulger murder in Britain and there are several aspects of it that could be interpreted as carrying a Christian message. Not that it matters all that much. The naturalist performances of Gourmet and Marinne are key to the film’s success. If you fall in love with this movie, it is probably because of their emotionally charged work.
The Son 2002-Belgium-France. 100 min. Color. Produced by Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, Denis Freyd. Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne. Cast: Olivier Gourmet (Olivier), Morgan Marinne (Francis), Isabella Soupart (Magali), Rémy Renaud, Nassim Hassaïni.
Trivia: Original title: Le fils.
Cannes: Best Actor (Gourmet).
Last word: “Most significantly we chose carpentry as a trade for Olivier because in the end – if you consider the film in terms of a purely cinematographic sense of form – you have a man and a boy, and between them a murder that is of special significance to Olivier. How will they be able to approach each other? They are closed up in a car, for example. How will we be able to calculate, to measure the distance between these two bodies? We have that night scene where Francis measures the distance between his foot and Olivier’s. And when the moment comes for them to touch each other, will it be to forgive or to kill? Thinking about carpentry really allowed us to understand what we were trying to do in this film.” (Luc Dardenne, Diary of a Screenwriter)