Those who admired the Palme d’Or-winning Rosetta (1999) will be familiar with the minimalist aesthetic and moral inquisitiveness of the Belgian filmmaking duo, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. In other hands Le Fils (The Son) might have become a straightforward revenge thriller, but the brothers shy away from melodramatic flourishes: there is no music on the soundtrack, the performances are understated, and it is the gestures of the characters which are more psychologically revealing rather than the dialogue. The less divulged about the plot the better, except to say that Olivier Gourmet, the Dardennes’ regular collaborator, plays a carpentry instructor for disadvantaged teenagers who mysteriously begins to spy on one of his new trainees. Compassionate and enigmatic, this Bressonian inquiry into suffering and forgiveness is imbued with a profoundly Christian sensibility.
Tom Dawson: How soon after Rosetta did you begin work on Le Fils?
Luc Dardenne: We always need a bit of time after finishing a film before we start up again. After Rosetta we had the beginnings of two stories, and we were hesitating between the two. And then we started working on Le Fils, and we abandoned it twice and had a rest for a while. And then finally we did go back to it and made it our next project.
TD: What is so special about Olivier Gourmet as an actor?
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: What is special about him is that there is nothing special. He’s an Everyman figure, he could be anybody. He’s neutral. If he were among ten people you probably wouldn’t recognise him or pick him out. What interests us is his body. He’s got a certain weight about him and yet at the same time he’s very agile. He was very sporting when he was younger. Also his glance, his look is very particular, and we played with his eyes in Le Fils. In certain positions, whether it’s sideways or face-to-face, you can virtually eliminate his eyes. It’s very particular the way his eyes are hidden by the rim of his glasses. His eyes are actually very small.
TD: Has Olivier Gourmet asked you why you are interested in him?
LD: He does say that he likes to work with his body and he is very manual. He is a man who doesn’t speak very much. He’s from the countryside and he likes the fact we don’t speak very much on set. The work on set is quite quiet. The films don’t have that much text. The films have an understanding, an entente, which doesn’t rely on words.
TD: How did you develop the film?
JPD: It didn’t develop from an idea. Initially, once we had a few fixed images, our main thing was to think how Olivier would welcome in to his workshop the killer of his son, and how the two bodies would react in such a confined space. Olivier is attracted to Francis and he’s also scared, and that’s what interested us. At that point we decided that Olivier would be a carpenter. That helped us enormously in terms of story-lines and scenes. That’s how we got the scenes with tape measures or the one with ladders. And with the bodies unbalancing the equilibrium. The small camera allowed us to give the impression that Olivier’s body was permanently unbalanced, as though he didn’t have two feet on the ground. Unlike Rosetta who had both feet planted on the ground.
TD: Why do you make your films so minimalist? There are no back-stories, the narrative is pared down, and there’s no music.
LD: You could say it’s a formula. The more you take off materially, the more spiritually the disarray can appear. It’s only a point of view, but what interests us is to go immediately to the essential and for us the essential in this story is the doubt, the hesitation, the oscillation about whether to kill or not to kill. That was what was working in our heads, that was the underlying question in the film. I’m not sure, but that’s what makes a lot of things no longer seem necessary. We also explored silence in a different way in Rosetta. There she mustn’t speak to preserve her energy. Here the silence is more about waiting. You’re waiting for something or somebody to say, ‘I regret’, or ‘I killed your son’. We cleared out more in this film than in other films. For example the colour in the apartment at Olivier was the same as in the carpentry workshop- there are no photos in the flat. It’s a film that’s more abstract than Rosetta.
TD: To what extent can we read this film as a religious parable?
JPD: It’s said to us so often that there must be some truth somewhere! We hope though we haven’t illustrated the script of the passion. It’s true that if you want to read it a certain way, there is a religious dimension. When Olivier is in the lumberyard, and at one point Olivier climbs up to the top, he drops one of the planks. I don’t know how, it must have been a fluke, I think one of the actors must have been in profile, and we had the father, the son, and the cross. And we yelled ‘Cut’ because it was too much.
TD: But you could have made Olivier a plumber.
LD: Death is also ever present in the film. We never see it but death is there. Wood remains a material that is alive. For a few months Olivier was going to be a cook. But we couldn’t quite grasp that – we need to have an image even if it’s slightly out-of-focus of what the film is going to be like. Often on location or set, we play the characters ourselves to see how things are going to happen, and to try different camera angles. The tape measure wasn’t just an idea – it was in the matter. Then we were able to articulate the story and the mise-en-scenes in the way we couldn’t with the kitchen.
TD: Bruno Dumont, the director of L’Humanité, has said that a film should be a dialogue between himself and the viewer. Is that valid for you?
JPD: We think about that the whole time. If somebody asks us if the audience is present, and are you scared whether or not the audience is going to like it or not, we answer that we want our film to love the audience, which doesn’t mean love or seduce in that sense, or make them more stupid. Within the frame we have a little spare space for the spectator to enter the film and do their own work. The camera is close in Le Fils, like in Rosetta. But in Rosetta the audience knows what she is going to do, or what she’s looking for. Here Olivier doesn’t know. Normally one tries to get into a rhythm that enables you to think. He looks for things and then suddenly we say ‘No, he’s killed his son’. So then the spectator will assume he wants to take revenge. It’s a sort of moral experience that the spectator undergoes through Olivier. Sometimes I’ve heard people say that at one point they felt close to the boy Francis, because he was weak. It’s a shame, one woman said, that he didn’t say sorry for what she did.
TD: Your next project?
JPD: We’re co-producing two or three films. We’ve already spoken about quite a lot of projects, but we always talk about the same things. Something will come forward with a bit more weight. We’re lucky in that we can get on with the films we want to make.