Le Fils

(The Son, Belgium/France - 2002)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Oliver Gourmet, Morgan Marinne
Genre: Drama
Director: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Cinematography: Alain Marcoen
Composer: -
Runtime: 103 minutes

Though he'll never be recognized where he belongs among the top five directors, Robert Bresson finally started getting some of the recognition he deserved during his final years. While that might not mean much since, as always, it's after he's done struggling to get his brilliant films made, it's more than can be said for the public with most originals, Orson Welles & Jacques Tati for instance, who then suddenly become geniuses upon their death.

Bresson's died at the end of 1999, a year that was notable for controversial Cannes Film Festival awards where two (well three) new directors who take much from Bresson took most of the awards given out by the David Cronenberg led jury. Bruno Dumont's film L'Humanite won the Grand Prize of the Jury, Best Actor, tied for Best Actress. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne's Rosetta won the Golden Palm and tied for Best Actress. Both had previously made one feature, but with these awards, and more importantly Dardenne's film being so moving that child labor laws were changed in their home country of Belgium, Bresson's influence seemed more prevalent than ever.

Dumont is one of the most polarizing directors currently working. I have not seen any of his films, but unfortunately his stock seems to have dropped with his latest Twentynine Palms. Meanwhile, Dardenne's stature has grown considerably, and by becoming two time Golden Palm winners when L'Enfant won this year, France is considering them the most important newer directors and certainly among the most important currently working.

I don't want to make Dardenne's sound like Bresson rip-offs by any means, but their work does have much in common with the master. They have the utmost respect for the audience striving to deliver a work of honesty and integrity, thus eliminating manipulation of all sorts. They cast people who are not there to stand out and make sure they don't express or emote anything in a traditional sense. This doesn't by any means they don't act, but they act without manipulating, showing things subtly but without revealing their intentions and emotions. Only natural locations are used, and they are stripped down the necessities so we aren't distracted by something incidental. They don't use a traditional soundtrack instead relying on heightened natural sound, though Dardennes don't really use sound symbolically like Bresson often did.

There are big differences between Dardennes and Bresson is their camera and editing style, though ultimately they are based on the idea of gaze. Bresson rightfully felt that camera movement would distract the audience, so he used static shots, often close-ups, and edited often relying on rhythm. Thus he was able to direct the audience's eye without making it look like he was doing so. By eliminating all other choices yet not making his decisions distractingly obvious, he made the audience focus on what they needed to see without realizing it because there were simply no other options available. Dardennes use handheld camera that stands very close to the action observing everything, as if they and thus the audience are impartial third party observers. They almost never edit within a scene, choosing to direct the audience to the important details by moving the camera to them. This is more distracting than Bresson because it is more obvious, but ultimately it achieves a similar result. The purposeful lack of polish in the movements adds to obviousness, and the believability, but it also adds a type of raw disconcerting tension that isn't present in Bresson's work. You seem to feel things in the body before they reach your head, though I prefer Bresson's style I have to admit Dardennes turbulence perfectly fits the type of story they choose to tell.

Bresson was concerned with the spiritual while Dardennes focus on the suffering of the less fortunate members of society before they reach whatever may lie beyond. Their success in this area alone makes them so valuable because the growth in dominance of consumerism has predictably led to almost all the funding going to the glorification of people who have things (the funders want to sell) and the sainthood of the rich (you aren't a threat if you believe some day you'll join their ranks). Their emergence gives some life to the dying genre of social realism, which sometimes among fiction filmmakers seems to include only Ken Loach & Mike Leigh, the latter of whom seems to be losing his rawness and getting more bourgeois since the tragic death of the great Katrin Cartlidge.

The brother's goal for The Son was dealing with revenge without being either exploitational or angelic, which is certainly a rare feat and one they've succeeded in. In a way there's almost nothing you can say about the "plot" of this film without spoiling it, but in a sense there's really nothing to tell anyway. Son is a mysterious film that works because it keeps you interested. The problem with mysteries is they almost always wind up being about plot, thus with each revelation they are in a sense are diminished by becoming less of what they are supposed to be. When the idea is not for the audience to solve the mystery, as is the case here, things are much more interesting because there's no distraction coming from the possibly, probably, potential ending. So Son is a work that's operating on a different level. By not spelling anything out it's constantly asking you to work, and by never focusing you on a superficial result it's giving you the freedom to see the big picture and question yourself.

Dardennes generally use new actors, non-professionals who then become professionals (which occasionally happened with Bresson's "models", notably the great Dominique Sanda). However, Olivier Gourmet, who more or less started with their first feature La Promesse, keeps coming back (which never happened with Bresson, who felt they were fully mined after one film). The main character is called Olivier. Dardennes named the character with Olivier Gourmet's real first name because it would be another aid to not distinguishing between the real person and the actor. This is not to say he's experienced all these situations or is this type of person, but that the goal is to give him nothing to hide behind. And amazingly he won acting awards without a ridiculous fake nose or going on an eating binge and looking more gaudy than usual.

Gourmet actually has a huge task because, in addition to no false showiness of scene or action, he has to hold our interest for 100 minutes without us learning much of anything about him. We know he's a carpenter whose estranged from Magali (Isabella Soupart, a poor job of casting going with someone who looks too young and in this atmosphere looks distractingly superficial), the mother of his murdered son. We know the murderer, Francis (Morgan Marinne), has been released from prison after five years and unknowingly applies for apprenticeship under Olivier. And there's some reason Olivier agrees to take him on, but lies to Magali about it. And half of that information comes from one scene between Olivier and Magali a little more than 30 minutes into the movie. Before that we wonder about almost everything, puzzled for instance why Francis is so much more interesting to Olivier than his other proteges, all of which is shown through the cameras gaze. While we continue to wonder about most things, the revelation alters our relationship with the film a great deal because suddenly we are privy to information that Francis is not.

Both of the main characters seem to naturally convey a mysterious desolate loneliness, and in good part the film is about wounded people who lack identity. Marinne's character is very sad, he's lost five years of his life, almost a third considering he's only 16, and he's got nothing to come home to and little future. He's seems someone that was born in the wrong place and never was able to recover.

Olivier may or may not have had a good life before his son was killed, but obviously he hasn't recovered. In these kinds of cases the specifics are never important, they may fill an exploitive news column or provide reasons to let people off the hook, but ultimately they detract from our experience because they ask for if not demand a response. Liking, disliking, feeling sorry for, whatever Olivier would just get in the way. What's important is can he/we get over it, can he/we forgive? Prison, though not always literally, was the subject of many of Bresson's films. Here is a case where both characters are imprisoned, and their relationship could provide their freedom.

Gourmet's acting style is perfectly suited to the Dardenne's camera style. It's very physical but totally unimposing. Gourmet makes us feel his edginess without ever expressing it. It's all in the way he moves, the way he walks, the way he hurries for no reason, the way seemingly easy decisions are changed midway through the action. People will dismiss it as not acting, but it's actually tremendous acting for precisely that reason, that it passes off the illusion of not acting while actually subtly conveying everything we need to know. Films and performances fall into the trap of revelation, but consistency is much more important for revelations are meaningless if they aren't earned.

Since Olivier is the star, our tendency would be to dislike Francis, but Dardennes don't let us off that easy. They force us to see a human being rather than a good or bad guy, which means someone that is both good and bad. Some things Olivier gets out of Francis may make us shift in one direction and others in another, the consistent thing is we wonder what we'd do if we were Olivier. And Olivier gives us no hint what he plans to do, gives Francis no hint he may be in danger. All this gives the film a tremendous tension, the kind that would never exist if some hammy horns were sounding the siren of impending DANGER!

The tension is a natural quite tension. Seemingly none of it is provided by the actors or the crew, whose goal instead is not to stand out. It's simply the situation itself, which is startling simply because we are so rarely left to observe it. It's so shocking that sometimes people don't see it. All they see is two characters largely plying their trade.

Bresson was so against plot because it gave the audience a false sense of control. In Paul Schrader's Transcendenal Style there's a good explanation from Bresson. "The plot screen establishes a simple, facile relationship between the viewer and event: when the spectator emphasizes with an action (the hero is in danger), he can later feel smug in its resolution (the hero is saved). The viewer feels that he himself has a direct contact with the workings of life, and that it is in some manner under his control. The viewer may not know how the plot will turn out (whether the hero will be saved or not), but he knows that whatever happens the plot resolution will be a direct reaction to his feelings." In order to sever the tie between the film and the viewer's feelings Bresson did his best to give away the ending, thus suspense was something he worked against. Dardenne's have done their best to keep the ending a secret, so while everything is held back until the end like Bresson, unlike Bresson the film lives or dies with Olivier's eventual revelation to Francis. To my mind, it lives.



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