Taciturn Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) teaches carpentry at a rehabilitation center for teens who've served time in a penitentiary for juvenile offenders. In the first scene he reveals a strange obsession with Francis (Morgan Marinne), a 16-year-old prospective student whose face we don't see until later. Olivier rejects the boy's application to join the class, but then the teacher rushes through the halls to spy on him.
That night Olivier learns his ex-wife Magali (Isabella Soupart) and her new husband are expecting a child. Olivier takes the news with little visible response -- like, we realize, he accepts practically everything. But the next day he arranges for Francis to join the class after all. When Olivier stares at the blond-haired boy as he sleeps in a locker room, we wonder if the teacher's gaze reflects sexual desire.
Only reluctantly does film give up its secret -- that Francis served time for a crime involving Olivier and Magali's own deceased son. So what is Olivier up to? Does he want to make Francis into a kind of surrogate for the son he lost? Does he have vengeance in mind? Or is he staying open to both ideas?
Gourmet gives an impressively economical performance, his rigid posture and level gaze testifying to his intensity. Olivier stays consistently closed off and tightly wound, shielded in carpenter's overalls, but The Son's writer-directors, brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, foster genuine intimacy with him by keeping their camera close to the actor's side. At times we see things exactly the way Olivier does; at other times, the side of his head or shoulder stays in frame. Frequently the camera loosens its invisible leash on Oliver so we can see him in full, though he seldom gets more than a room's-length away.
The style fits superbly with its subject matter. Olivier confides in no one and keeps his emotions ruthlessly in check, but his actions suggest a man torn by ambivalence. He frequently changes direction when going up stairs or down streets, and a shaky camera rushes to catch up. We get a vivid sense of a seething soul underneath the bland exterior. Plus, the camerawork heightens the film's voyeurism themes as Olivier follows Francis and sneaks into his room: We study Olivier as he studies the boy.
True, frustrations come with The Son's point of view, like occasionally obstructed views, as if we're sitting behind somebody tall. Certainly we get better acquainted with the back of Gourmet's balding head than we might otherwise choose. ("And the Oscar for Best Earlobe goes to ...")
The filmmakers cleverly prey on our knowledge of horror movies. When conventional suspense films employ pregnant silences and hand-held cameras, we brace ourselves for a shocking outburst. Olivier's wood shop turns out to be a fraught location, despite the calm moments when Olivier instructs his students in the plain rituals of carpentry. The rooms hang with freshly sharpened blades, blunt instruments and handy lengths of rope. With no music and little dialogue, The Son's silences frequently get disrupted by the shriek of saws on wood or deafening blows of hammers on nails, keeping us on edge.
The Son improves on In the Bedroom's story of vengeful, grieving parents by keeping its intentions uncertain until the very end. The Dardennes take to heart the adage "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer" and apply it to their camera. Only in the final moments do we learn if Olivier is friend or foe, yet somehow we become as close to him as we do to any other role we've ever seen on film.
In the latest 'Emory Looks at Hollywood' episode, Judith Evans Grubbs, Emory Professor of Roman…
"In the movies' worst scene..." should be "movie's"
--freelance copy editor, available for hire
I saw this headline before watching the movie yesterday, but this movie was way better…