Family Matters

The Dardenne Brothers pull at the ties that bind in 'The Son'

In the movies of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the camera is a hovering and anxious presence. In their first feature, La promesse, it flitted nervously as a browbeaten boy tried to decide where his sympathies lay: with his pitiless contractor father or with the immigrant laborers dying on Dad's watch. In their second, Rosetta, it held a desperate Belgian girl in a terrified grip, afraid to let her go for fear of what she might do to herself or others. With each film, the window of space captured by the Dardennes' viewfinder grew a little narrower, while the world within their scope grew larger.

In The Son, the Belgian brothers' new movie, their jittery camera is as insistent as a mosquito, or a conscience. It breathes down the neck of Olivier (Olivier Gourmet), a carpenter who runs a rehab-center workshop teaching a trade to juvenile offenders. For the movie's first few minutes, we see little more than the back of Olivier's head as he charges through the shop, settling a momentary crisis. He races up a stairwell, the camera trailing him like a pursuer, then stops transfixed in front of a window where a teenager is applying for his work program.

At this point, the closeness of cinematographer Alain Marcoen's camera, combined with the limits of its blocked view, puts us in an ambiguous position as viewers. Are we meant to study this clammy, uncomfortable man? Or are we supposed to side with him as the camera shifts so that we share his view? All we know, by the end of the scene, is that something about the teen--a spiky-haired, vulnerable kid named Francis (Morgan Marinne)--sends Olivier sneaking downstairs to look for a sharp object. As Olivier starts to stalk Francis near his apartment, while rebuffing the boy's awkward attempts at friendship, the agitated camerawork makes us even queasier.

Woodworking as war: Olivier Gourmet in 'The Son'
New Yorker Films
Woodworking as war: Olivier Gourmet in 'The Son'

The Dardennes are too interested in the bedrock moral quandaries they raise to abandon them for overhyped script machinery. Their background is in documentary television, and they fix their subjects in tactile details of everyday life--so forcefully that Rosetta's indelible depiction of scuffling for chump change moved Belgian lawmakers to address child-labor conditions. The Dardennes' jumpy cinema puts a gun to the head of neorealism: The tension comes from how long the characters can afford to hang on to their scruples, when life might be easier without them. Olivier, it turns out, has good reason to hate the puppyish Francis, who's oblivious to his mentor's simmering, perhaps even murderous torment. To make the situation even more harrowing, Olivier Gourmet has the kind of average, indistinct looks that could pass for either a hardware-store clerk or a serial killer.

There's nothing average or indistinct, though, about Gourmet's riveting performance. It may be that the camera's intrusion made the actor concentrate all the harder, but whatever the case, Olivier's immersion in the minutiae of woodworking has the intensity of mortal combat--which, in the Dardennes' universe, it is. Every time Olivier reaches for a plank or hammer, the Dardennes make us feel that lives hang in the balance, even if it's really the characters' souls that are in jeopardy. The camera allows no detachment, and in the end, the filmmakers' deliberate detail work yields larger rewards. As The Son's devastating ending shows, they believe something as vast as redemption can be wrought from the simplest materials, even rope and rough lumber.

 
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