Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Movie Moment Redux: The Son (2002, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

(Originally posted on 15 June 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)

(WARNING: BIG TIME SPOILER ALERT! If you have not seen The Son and have any intentions to in the future, do not read this piece!)

Chris Rock once joked that the only song for fathers was "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," and the same lament could be made for big-screen fatherhood. In trying to think of a Movie Moment for Father’s Day, I kept coming back to a film about a man who doesn’t actually have any children- Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Son.

Olivier Gourmet plays a carpentry teacher (also named Olivier) at a school for troubled boys. As the film begins, Francis (Morgan Marinne), recently released from a detention center, has just enrolled in the school, and an administrator asks Olivier if he’s willing to take on the new student. Olivier says no, but he takes a fairly long time to decide, and later Olivier sneaks out of class to look at the boy. What is he thinking? Why is he so interested in Francis? Eventually, we find out: Francis was sent to the detention center for impulsively killing a small child — Olivier’s son.

The way Olivier deals with this comprises much of the drama. A more conventional film would be about Olivier taking revenge on this boy, but the Dardennes aren’t too interested in conventional filmmaking. Besides, it’s not in Olivier’s nature. A vocational teacher, he legitimately wants to help his students, imparting practical knowledge gained from experience, as a father might.

With no father of his own to idolize, Francis finds a suitable father figure in Olivier, perhaps the first man in years who hasn’t treated him like a criminal. He pays attention to what Olivier teaches him, and wants to do well not just for himself, but for Olivier too.

There’s a small moment in the film that captures this desire perfectly. After helping Francis to build a toolbox, Olivier goes through his routine of cleaning up. He puts his tools away then uses an air hose to clean off the sawdust. As Olivier walks into the locker room, he stops and turns around, and sees Francis using the air hose as he did. The Dardenne brothers don’t linger on this moment or goose it with music or slow-motion. We simply see Francis as Olivier sees him.

Gourmet makes Olivier that rarest of movie characters, a genuinely good man — one who’s done good for so long that it’s become second nature. He legitimately cares about his students, and even when faced with the person who wronged him most grievously, his strongest impulse is to help him.

Gourmet’s performance has been widely praised, and rightly so. No less important to the film is Marinne, who plays Francis. The filmmakers don’t need to explain how much Francis idolizes Olivier, for it’s all there in Marinne’s performance — the way he watches Olivier so intently, so as to emulate what he does. Francis is not evil, but a careless boy, prone to panicking under pressure, a tendency that once manifested itself at the worst possible time. He needs guidance, patience and understanding. He needs a father. And Olivier is just the father he needs.

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