The Son

From the Dardenne brothers comes a poignant tale of a carpentry instructor and his neck.

 

 

If you have a neck fetish, be prepared for rapture when you watch writers/directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's latest feature, The Son.

 

A bizarre number of scenes in the Dardenne's filmography feature characters hiding, chasing one another, and wrestling on the ground. Fittingly, these scenes are filmed in the same areas of Belgium where the Dardenne brothers grew up, no doubt acting just like their fictional characters. They're also filmed in a cinema verite style (the Dardennes were formerly documentary filmmakers) with a handheld camera almost always directly behind the head of the main character.

 

For those viewers who see the human neck as a non-sexual apparatus, this can be disconcerting––though The Son comes nowhere near the level of nape-gazing contained in the Dardenne's last film, Rosetta, which won the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1999. Watching Rosetta in full-screen format, which cropped out what small glimpses could be head—I mean had—of anything non-cranial, I literally got nauseous. The nausea only added to the unintentional hilarity of the film, an anti-capitalist sociological tract whose final scene, in which Rosetta (who evokes Robert Bresson's Mouchette) carries a propane tank with which to kill herself, while an angry ex-coworker circles her with his motorcycle, summed up everything detestable about bad art-house cinema.

 

Thankfully, The Son not only features a few medium shots, but the Dardennes have reduced the scale of their theorizing, focusing instead on the mysterious relationship between a carpentry instructor at a juvenile rehabilitation center and a sullen new student. When Olivier, the instructor, first spies the boy, it's clear that there's a hidden connection between them. We know this because Olivier runs and hides, the camera steadfastly on his neck.

 

But as that mystery is made clear—and the camera pulls back—The Son becomes progressively more involving. Both Olivier Gourmet, who plays Olivier, and Morgan Marinne, who plays the boy, Francis, have an intriguing air of opacity and sorrow about them (the Dardennes say in the DVD interview that filming Marinne was like having a ghost onset).

 

The appeal of realist cinema is that by avoiding devices that manipulate emotion, when an emotional payoff does come, it's greater than any that a pumped-up soundtrack could wring from an audience. The conclusion of The Son poignantly reveals that the Dardennes know just as much about fathers and sons as they do brothers. Just keep some Pepto-Bismol next to your popcorn.

 

--Joshua Avram

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