Dirs: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Belgium/ France. 2002. 103 mins.
The Dardennes' austere and uncompromising aesthetic is back on full display in The Son, a minutely observed, dramatically compelling study of the violent emotions seething below the drab surface of working-class lives. Not exactly an easy sell, in other words, which won't be news to the filmmaking brothers: even Rosetta, their bombshell Palme d'Or win three years, did not penetrate far beyond the extreme arthouse fringes. The Son is just as certain to polarise critical opinion, and equally unlikely to be found competing with Star Wars: Episode II at local multiplexs. But it can rest assured of a small but ardent audience on the festival circuit and among the Dardennes' dauntless band of admirers.
Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) runs a carpentry workshop in a grey Belgian industrial town for youths from troubled backgrounds. One day a new apprentice, Francis (Morgan Marinne), presents himself. The visibly agitated Olivier claims that his class is full and the boy is sent to train instead elsewhere as a welder.
Opening a can for dinner that evening at his spartan bachelor flat, Olivier receives a visit from a woman, Magali, apparently his ex-wife, who tells him she is to remarry and joyfully confides that she is pregnant. Further upset by this news, Olivier has Francis re-deployed to his own workshop the following day.
There's something immediately unsettling about the lad. Although barely literate, he's fairly bright, but his pretty-boy looks are marred by the chilling blank look in his eyes that, for this British critic at least, was eerily reminiscent of Robert Thompson, the child killer of toddler Jamie Bulger. It comes as no great surprise when, early in the story, we learn what we already suspected - that he has indeed committed a murder, of Olivier and Magali's son.
Francis seems keen to ingratiate himself with Olivier, constantly engineering encounters in the street and eventually asking him to become his guardian. Olivier's motives are opaque. On familiar terms with the other apprentices, he can't bring himself to shake the boy's hand or speak his name. Is he seeking revenge' There is certainly no shortage of saws, knives, planks and other potential weapons around the place, and the natural occupational hazards of this work generate a constant sense of tension.
Yet he goes out of his way to give the boy extra tuition. Is this altruism well beyond the cause of duty - or an attempt to save his own lost soul' Asked by a shocked Magali why he's doing it, he replies simply: "I don't know." The relationship comes to a head at the film's climax, during a long trip to a deserted sawmill far outside the town.
As the Dardennes note, The Son could have been called "The Father" and this is, in fact, Olivier's story. In the foreground of every shot, Gourmet gives an invigoratingly understated performance. Stolid and taciturn, he none the less conveys, with his thick glasses and heavy physique, a character weighed down by infinite sadness.
It is easy to imagine what a more conventional film might have made of this material. But, while a basic curiosity about the story's unfolding enigmas plays its part in holding the audience's attention, The Son skirts all the built-in melodrama of the material. Shot, like Rosetta, with a hand-held camera in close-up and medium close-up, many scenes seem content to observe the grainy routine of these people's lives. In contrast, however, the Dardennes' preference for approaching their characters from behind creates a pervasive edginess, as if they were being stalked by the camera. But the heart of the drama is all in the detail, the small revealing gesture and inadvertent admission. It's minimalist film-making taken to its absolute height.
Prod cos: Les Films du Fleuve, Archipel 35, RTBF
Int'l sales: Celluloid Dreams
Prods: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Denis Freyd
Scr: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Cinematography: Alain Marcoen
Prod des: Igor Gabriel
Ed: Marie-Helene Dozo
Main cast: Olivier Gourmet, Morgan Marinne, Isabella Soupart