Watching The Son, the critically-acclaimed film from the Dardenne brothers (La Promesse, Rosetta), I was struck, first and foremost, by what I didn’t see in the film. No soaring musical climaxes (actually, I don’t seem to recall any music in the film whatsoever), no heartwrenching speeches, no tearful monologues, no overwrought finales. And this in a film that deals with some very weighty moral choices and themes—revenge, forgiveness, and grace.
Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) works at a rehab center for teenage boys, teaching them carpentry so they’ll have some sort of trade when they enter back into real life. He’s been divorced for several years and lives a quiet, meticulous existence. That is, until a new boy named Francis arrives at the center. At first, Olivier refuses to take him, and then inexplicably changes his mind. Soon, he’s following the boy everywhere, noting his every movement, where he goes, who he sees. He scrambles through the halls of the center, hoping to catch a glimpse of him.
At first, we’re complete unsure why he’s doing this, why he’s so obsessed with Francis. And then we learn the secret (which I shan’t reveal), and it all becomes clear. And as the film continues, our knowledge of the exact nature of Olivier and Francis’ “relationship” ratchets up the tension, casting an interesting pall over every single one of Olivier’s actions and words until the credits roll.
In all honesty, I finished the movie and removed it from the player without much thought. I found it interesting, and that was about it. But something about the film just lodged itself in my mind, such that as I continue to think about it, and what is represented by the film’s events, I’ve grown to appreciate it more and more.
The heart and soul of the film is Gourmet’s performance, or better yet, his non-performance. For a good part of the film, all we see is Olivier’s back—his hunched shoulders, the way he shuffles around, his bent head, his backbrace—as the camera follows him following Francis. However, as the film continues, it seems like the camera moves to capture more of his stilted interactions with Francis.
Gourmet does all this in a completely naturalistic and realistic manner, which when combined with digital video and handheld camerawork, gives the film a very documentary-esque style (and sometimes a voyeuristic one as well). There’s not a single moment in the film that I can recall thinking “Wow, this guy is a great actor!”, which means he was doing his job—the best acting is the acting that you don’t even notice.
Later on, as Olivier plans what to do with Francis, one can literally see the gears turning in his head—and since Olivier is not one given to exposition, we’re left wondering if his thoughts and intentions are good or evil, or perhaps a little of both. At first, this all seems so slight as to be unnoticeable. But in hindsight, Olivier’s emotions, which are so pent up in the film, come through loud and clear. And his actions, or lack thereof, take on even more weight in The Son‘s final act, which seems to heading towards a particular resolution—and considering the information we’ve gained earlier in the film, it doesn’t look like a particularly pretty resolution.
And then there’s the film’s resolution. Like I said before, I won’t reveal the exact nature of the relationship between Olivier and Francis (though plenty of folks have if you’re truly curious). Nor will I claim that the resolution ends on a completely fulfilling note. While there is closure, it’s so slight as to not even notice it. Which again, is odd considering the film deals with topics that easily lend themselves to overwrought emotional experiences in film. In its own way, it is refreshing to see how these passionate topics are dealt with here, and to see them dealt with in such a non-typical way.