Friday, July 10, 2009

Counting Down the Zeroes 2003: The Son



Here's my second review for the year 2003 for Film for the Soul's Counting Down the Zeroes project -- click the link and check out all of the other fine entries for the year 2003.

I think Roger Ebert said it best when he reviewed The Son upon its 2003 theatrical release: “All a critic can bring to it is admiration. It needs no insight or explanation.” So, what else is there to say then? If I say the film is brilliant, then how is it brilliant? That’s the thing about the films of the Dardenne Brothers, it’s not so much how it is brilliant – the aesthetics are your typical (seemingly) simple minimalist tactics: over the shoulder shots, voyeuristic tight shots, and long takes with no musical score to tap us on the shoulder and tell us it’s time to feel something – it’s the why that makes it different. The Dardenne’s make films about something. They rely on the audiences expectations that something has to happen, and then revel in letting things just play out with a total disregard for how popular film and television have trained us to see a scene. The Dardenne’s look at their subjects with the precision of an expert artisan; they measure, assay, and then proudly display to us their findings. And Ebert’s right, all one can do is show their admiration, because really, what filmmakers trust their audiences enough to understand that it is in the small, quiet moments of the banality of everyday life where the most profound truths can be discovered.


The Dardenne’s finest film is indeed The Son, a film with a title that aptly represents their style of filmmaking: simple and to the point. We know there is a man named Olivier (played by Olivier Gourmet who one the Best Actor prize at Cannes that year) and that he works at a trade school. He teaches carpentry to boys fresh out of juvenile prison. One day he is approached to take a boy named Francis. He cannot because they are full; however, Olivier sees something in the boy and begins stalking him, sizing him up and trying to find out as much as he can about him. Countless films have trained audiences to think that one of the following will occur: Olivier sees potential in the boy and will turn him into a proper citizen through hard labor and lots of on-camera soul searching, Olivier is a pedophile who stalks children, or Olivier is the boy’s father. None of these are true, although the first instance does sort of occur as Olivier tells the woman in charge of placement that he can take the boy in his wood shop.

We get small slices of insight into Olivier’s life. One night after work Olivier is visited by a woman. They trade pleasantries, but Olivier seems detached – fiercely focused on what seems like the rude and inappropriate practice of soup – while his guest stands and looks at him. We come to find out that this is Olivier’s ex-wife. She is getting re-married and is pregnant. Olivier wonders why she had to tell him this today. She says because I am off on Wednesday’s. He replies “why this Wednesday.” It’s exchanges like this that make me adore the Dardenne’s and extol them as two of the most important filmmakers working today. The way they carefully mete out the information in the scene – so that the viewer is now assuming the correlations between the films title and Olivier and his ex-wife – is a perfect example of how, when used properly, the effects of minimalist cinema are some of the most powerful tools a filmmaker can use.

When Olivier begins to take a more blatant, vested interest in Francis certain truths are revealed that I dare not give away. We soon begin to see the relevance of the film’s title, and we begin to see that The Son is a film with many religious allegories (work/labor as penance, grace, faith through works/deeds versus forgiveness, revenge/forgiveness); however, it is not interested in your generic apprenticeship type storyline. The two have brief conversations, usually interrupted by work or table soccer, but eventually Olivier finds out what Francis did to get locked up, and it’s from that point on that the film starts to unravel deep pain and truths that are the rarest of commodities in film.

I hesitate to divulge too much more information – sure the film has been out for six years now, but if you haven’t seen the film I implore you to do so now. This is the type of film that can elevate the soul to places that we normally associate with the great pieces of classical music, poetry, literature, philosophical or religious inquiry, etc. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, as cheesy as it sounds, this film has the ability to change you, and I wouldn’t want to spoil that by giving away plot points – even though a film as good as this rises above any kind of “spoiler warning”.

The aesthetics of the film are typical of the Dardenne’s and of this particular film movement. The Dardenne’s simply observe the action in the film – they let the audience watch intently knowing that they don’t need to “punch up” any scenes with visual or dramatic √©lan. The film is simple, and there isn’t a lot that “happens” in traditional film speak, but despite the so-called simplicities of The Son it is a film that is extremely intense and superbly crafted. You watch with that kind of undivided attention as if you were listening to a really good lecture or trying to eavesdrop on an interesting conversation in a coffee shop.

The plot is not sitcomy. There are moments where Olivier is alone with Francis and we assume the worst. Specifically I’m thinking of the scene where the two are cutting wood with a saw, and because of how we’ve been trained by lesser films we think something bad is going to happen; but no, the Dardenne’s aren’t interested in that, they’re interested in the craft of what Olivier does – they film the scene and watch him with just as much precision and care as Olivier is applying to sawing the wood…it’s an amazing scene that, despite seeming simple enough, is a rarity in film.

The film is a masterpiece because the Dardenne’s understand this simple truth: when adult mentors make an impact in a young person’s life, the change that may occur rarely looks like the way it is portrayed in movies like Freedom Writers or Good Will Hunting. The process of transformation is usually a slow burn (I’m speaking form experience here as I’m a teacher at a school with the same kinds of kids as Francis), and the Dardenne’s use of minimalist staples help punctuate that sentiment; sure there are epiphanies, but rarely do they occur in such an over-the-top manner. The banality of it all is actually what makes The Son work – what makes it uber-real, here the banality is a good thing, a platform for the Dardenne’s to show that it’s often in the banal that the most change occurs.

Yes, Olivier is teaching Francis a trade, but he’s doing much more than that, and when you see the movie (or if you have you know what I’m speaking about here), and you’re made aware of certain information that the characters have, it makes the ending all the more powerful. Why? Because of what it not done. Too often we have been trained to expect something to “happen”, because everything in film these days has to have foreshadowing or a “big” climax; a crescendo or coda that really makes the viewer feel like they experienced something. That’s Hollywood, though; in real life it’s the small moments that make the difference, and they often go missed if you’re not looking for them. My vocational experiences have shown me that these are the moments when the marginalized, troubled kids like Francis learn…not in shouting matches or big emotional breakdowns, but in silence, working side by side – by simply being. No one in film understands this more than the Dardenne’s, and when the film ends in typical Dardenne fashion, just as banal as what has preceded it, all you can do is shake your head in gratitude that somebody got it right.

The Son is a masterpiece without the pomp or pretension found in the minimalist cinema of John Cassavetes or Lars von Trier. The Dardenne’s are able to evoke great emotion from the simplest (without drawing attention to how stripped back those moments are like the aforementioned filmmakers) through silence and astute observation. There’s something refreshing about the way the Dardenne’s have managed to even strip back elements of the minimalist movement to create a fly-on-the-wall type of film that allows us to sit and breathe and ponder next to these characters.

So, Ebert was right. I haven’t added much insight with this “review” into the themes this film broaches. Part of that is because I don’t want to give away some of the films deeper moments by ruining things for first time viewers, but ultimately I think it proves Ebert’s point that when one talks about The Son all the critic can do is admire it. There’s no critical deconstruction necessary because the Dardenne’s leave it all out there in their film; they don’t deal with nuances, but they’re not over-the-top, either. They simply observe and then proceed in displaying what they set out to do. I guess the most suitable way to wrap this up is with another quote from Ebert’s great review: “The Son needs no insight or explanation. It sees everything and explains all. It is as assured and flawless a telling of sadness and joy as I have ever seen.” There is no need for me to further explain the brilliance of this film. Ebert, obviously, says it better than I ever could, and it's pretty clear to this humble blogger that The Son is without question the best film of 2003.

4 comments

  1. I've not seen a Dardennes brothers film. Maybe I ought to.

    ReplyDelete
  2. COPIED AND PASTED FROM "FILMS FOR THE SOUL"

    Whether THE SON is the Dardenne's "finest film" as you propose here is still open for question. Certainly, ROSETTA, LA PROMESSE and L'ENFANT are in the mix for that penultimate designation, but I can't fault you for feeling this way Kevin, as this is a quietly powerful piece. The Dardennes are Bresson advocates and their austere style recalls the great French filmmaker with their simple mise en scene and observational technique.

    "The Son is a masterpiece without the pomp or pretension found in the minimalist cinema of John Cassavetes or Lars von Trier. The Dardenne’s are able to evoke great emotion from the simplest (without drawing attention to how stripped back those moments are like the aforementioned filmmakers) through silence and astute observation..."

    Indeed. I am not of course of the belief that Von Trier is pretentious in any sense, but I understand the comparative line here.

    And this paragraph:

    "The film is a masterpiece because the Dardenne’s understand this simple truth: when adult mentors make an impact in a young person’s life, the change that may occur rarely looks like the way it is portrayed in movies like Freedom Writers or Good Will Hunting. The process of transformation is usually a slow burn (I’m speaking form experience here as I’m a teacher at a school with the same kinds of kids as Francis), and the Dardenne’s use of minimalist staples help punctuate that sentiment; sure there are epiphanies, but rarely do they occur in such an over-the-top manner. The banality of it all is actually what makes The Son work – what makes it uber-real, here the banality is a good thing, a platform for the Dardenne’s to show that it’s often in the banal that the most change occurs...."

    which is informed by personal experiences fully approaches the essence of this film. These qualities and quiet observations (including the ennui) applies to all of the Dardenne's work in fact.

    Your great passion and acute understanding of these Belgian wonderkinds have really made this review a splendid and provocative read. I share your love for these gifted filmmakers.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Rick:

    I think you would love their work. It is soul-elevating stuff. Extremely powerful filmmakers. I would start with The Son and then if you like it, move on to L'Enfant and their Palm D'Or winner from 1999 Rosetta. All powerful films about redemption.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Sam:

    Thanks for re-posting your wonderful comments here. I should be getting La Promesse in the mail sometime this week. I'm very excited.

    ReplyDelete