Monday, August 6, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #45 - The Son (2002, dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

If you’re new to the works of the Dardenne Brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, there may be a little explaining necessary before you dive into their films. It may be overstating things to say that they ushered in a new school of European cinema (and it may not be) but it’s not overstating things to say that over their last five films, they have won more major awards at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival than any filmmakers ever. Ever. Let that thought stew for a bit. In the mid-1970’s Jean-Pierre and Luc founded a production company and began to produce documentaries of their own and by other filmmakers, examining the social climate of modern Europe, the fallout of WWII, and other topics, often leaning toward looking at poverty and immigration with a strong social conscience. By the 1990’s, they had turned to narrative filmmaking, garnering great notice with 1996’s La Promesse, which paved the way for 1999’s Rosetta, which walked home with the Palme D’Or from Cannes – the first Belgian film ever to do so – for its portrayal of a young woman who works to try to escape the desperate poverty in which she and her alcoholic mother live (both films are slated for release by the Criterion Collection on 8/14).
And it is under the shadow of their success with Rosetta that the Dardennes, feeling great pressure to make a worthy follow-up, created The Son (Le Fils). Given their training in documentary filmmaking, they use many documentary techniques – no sound effects beyond on-site sound, frequent use of existing lighting and locations, no score to emotionally underpin scenes – to create their story. Coupled with their frequent use of medium close-ups of their actors and their penchant for long takes (they say in a commentary that the film consists of about 80 takes – by contrast, the famous 3-minute shower scene in Psycho has 50), the style lends a directness and realism to the picture that is at times uncomfortable. The actors play down their roles and behave like real people instead of movie characters, and in the manner of the best Ingmar Bergman films, there are moments where we feel like we’re present in a tumultuous moment of someone else’s actual life when maybe we shouldn’t be there watching. The center of this film, and the winner of the Cannes Best Actor award for his performance here, is Olivier Gourmet, playing Olivier, a carpenter who teaches his trade at a vocational school for troubled youth (it’s no surprise to learn that the Dardennes conceived the film as a vehicle for Gourmet after working with him on their previous two features). When a new youth, Francis (played by Morgan Marinne), arrives at the school, Olivier at first refuses to accept him into his class, instead following the youth around the school and spying on him. Soon, he relents and accepts him into his class and this is where it’s time to stop talking about the plot.
Nothing much has happened to this point except that we’ve come to see the routine day-to-day behavior of both principles, including Olivier’s odd obsession, and before long, at about a half hour into the film, information is divulged to the audience that drastically changes our perception of the relationship between the two. And it’s the mastery of the Dardennes’ tightly held camera shots – kudos here due to cinematographer Alain Marcoen, who has worked with the brothers on every film from La Promesse forward and contributed greatly to their trademark visual style – their casual yet precise way of offering up plot details with a nonchalance that lets the audience have just enough information to carry us through, their methods of working with their cast to create the pitch-perfect performances (especially, though not limited to, Gourmet’s inscrutable performance of murky motives) that generates a nearly unbearable tension in the film. They play off and confound our expectations of what might happen, what we’ve seen in a dozen or a thousand other movies, and what we might do in the same situation that Olivier finds himself in. They don’t go out of their way to explain things unnecessarily – when Olivier is asked at one point in the film why he’s doing what he’s doing, he says “I don’t know.” And we’re left to put it together and take in what we see on-screen and our own reactions to it.

            The Dardennes have a gift for films about troubled young people that is at once sympathetic to the issues and choices facing them, but clear eyed about the fact that these are choices they make, not inevitabilities. What they also have that more cynical filmmakers lack is a sense of their films treading a line between disaster and hope – will whatever past history binds Olivier and Francis be overcome or will it consume them? More than the specific plot machinations, it’s that tension that makes the films go, and The Son, no less than their Palme D’or honored films Rosetta or The Child, makes the most of that tension.
- Patrick

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