Cinema doesn’t very often come as subtle and minimalist as Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Cannes-award-winning The Son. The Belgian directing duo (who also directed Rosetta, which won the Palme d’Or in 1999), have showed they possess a rare ability to make the familiar weird and silence eloquent. They’ve hit the right note again with this story of a father who has to confront a tragedy in his life. Starring Olivier Gourmet, who won the best actor award in Cannes for his peculiar performance, the film, shot on DV, unravels in a documentary-like way in a most uneventful place: a rehabilitation centre for boys where they can learn a new skill, in this case carpentry, and an unnamed, non-specific town.
Gourmet’s Olivier is a trainer who at first refuses a place for Francis (Morgan Marinne), but at the same time develops a pattern of obsession with him. He looks at him inquisitively, then starts following him around in the street, to the point you at first think he has developed some kind of infatuation. And that’s pretty much it, really, until Olivier’s girlfriend steps into the film to shed some light on what has been kept obscure so far. Magali (Isabella Soupart) is pregnant and gets extremely upset at the prospect of the boy being close to Olivier. That’s as much as should be revealed here, though.
The inquisitive, stalking camerawork is an important element in how such a sparse narrative can still draw the viewer into what appears, at its core, to be a mystery. Arguably, the first part of the film, when we’re still in the dark about the event that is driving the film forward, is the best section. It slightly loses its grip once it all gets spelt out, but still scores many points in other aspects. Gourmet composes an exact picture of ambiguity with his specs, his stocky build held in overalls, and his facial features. He brilliantly brings to life a character that is both completely recognisable and at the same time completely idiosyncratic. Marinne also succeeds in portraying a burdened, sullen ‘man’ who, at barely fiftenn, already knows what the limited chances life has in store for him.
The Son is ultimately a film that rejects any prefabricated narrative or any specific genre – it is part-drama, part-suspense, and part realist-docudrama. It ends in the same way it begins, without any warnings, dressing itself with a thin veil of surrealism in the process. It is a simple, unpretentious meditation on our capacity to forgive and to deal with tragedy while steering clear of Manichean moralising. On first sight it could even be confused with a Dogme film – but it would be unfair to attach a tag to a film that certainly stands in a class of its own and opts for an altogether quieter type of genius.