The Son Movie Review
With our gaze positioned directly over his shoulder - providing us with an all-too-intimate familiarity with Gourmet's ear hair - the Dardennes force us to assume Olivier's subjective worldview. Still, despite our proximity, scarcely anything about this strange man is initially decipherable. He's a quiet, pensive individual with a gift for measurement - he can scarily deduce the distance between any two things just by looking at them - living a life of stultifying nothingness. The filmmakers, however, take great pains to explicitly tell us as little as possible about Olivier. Most of what we learn about his personality is revealed not courtesy of high drama but instead through watching him perform mundane daily rituals: helping his students with their carpentry assignments, cleaning his clothes with an air blower after a day in the workshop, doing sit-ups on his barren kitchen floor.
Olivier's quiet, measured life is thrown for a loop with the arrival at the center of a young boy named Francis (Morgan Marinne), who, for reasons not immediately known, captures the carpenter's undivided attention. Olivier enrolls Francis in his carpentry class, but it is only after watching the grown man surreptitiously stalk his apprentice around the city that we finally learn why he's so obsessed: Years earlier, Francis killed Olivier's son while trying to steal a car radio. Although Olivier's ex-wife Magali (Isabella Soupart) - who, in a cruel twist of fate, stops by Olivier's apartment on the day of Francis' first appearance to let him know that she is pregnant and re-marrying - is puzzled and appalled by her former spouse's need to form a relationship with Francis, Olivier remains mysteriously focused on getting to know the boy. We watch with baited breath as Olivier shows Francis how to use his new carpentry tools and speaks to him at a local eatery, anxious and unnerved by our inability to grasp Olivier's ultimate intentions. The suspense of trying to decipher his character and motive keeps the viewer interested in his spiritual journey, and deftly propels the film toward its heavily symbolic Christian denouement (Olivier is, after all, a carpenter struggling with issues of forgiveness, selflessness, and healing.)
Yet in spite of the film's unadorned visual grace - the Dardennes' handheld camera captures more than its fair share of stunning moments, the best of which visually demonstrates the unbridgeable gap between Olivier and his former wife - and its single-minded desire to place us in Olivier's head, The Son's emotional remoteness leaves the film feeling frustratingly cold and impersonal. We want to become invested in Olivier's plight, but since the film is deliberately opaque about what he's feeling, the closer the camera gets to its subject, the less one cares about understanding him. The effect that the Dardennes achieve is not unlike what John Cusack's Craig Schwartz must have experienced while hanging out in John Malkovich's head in Being John Malkovich: residing inside someone else's mind without ever really knowing what they're thinking.
Aka Le Fils.