The Quality of Mercy
Chroniclers of the mundane, champions of the meek and dispossessed, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne make movies of intimidating purity. Three features into their fiction film career, the brothers have constructed a distinctive universe of proletarian woe and unanticipated redemption. Le Fils (The Son), their latest dip into miserablist waters, is as much a reiteration as an elaboration of the brothers’ preoccupations. Shuffled to the background are the blatant polemics of their previous film, Rosetta (1999); more pronounced is a moving strain of Christian faith.
The Dardennes do not so much construct a fiction as document an unraveling episode in an unexamined life. As with Rosetta and their debut, La Promesse (1997), they plunge the audience into the story unceremoniously. Perfectly plain behind thick glasses and a scowl, Olivier (played by Dardenne regular Olivier Gourmet) is a carpentry teacher at a vocational school for juvenile delinquents. Shot mostly from behind and up close, Olivier is an agitated subject at the outset. Playing the gruff mentor to his wayward flock, he moves briskly, spitting out curt instructions and stern reproaches.
The movie takes its time explaining itself. Narrative information and expository signposts are withheld early on. Exacerbating the disorientation is the Dardennes’ rigorous naturalism, which relies on verité-style camerawork. (You wouldn’t need a bio to inform you that the brothers worked in documentaries for years.) That the focus of its volatile gaze is a cipher makes Le Fils all the more obscure. By the time the movie’s themes snap into focus, a good thirty minutes have already passed.
The catalyst of this parable arrives in the form of Francis (Morgan Marinne), a new student in Olivier’s class—and a presence that unaccountably harries the stolid carpenter. Just as puzzling to the dazed viewer is Olivier’s reaction to his ex-wife’s news that she will soon have a baby: why, he asks her, did she tell him today of all days? Soon enough, his fixation on the student is explained: it turns out Francis is the boy who killed his own child years earlier. What Olivier chooses to do with the knowledge becomes the stuff of this movie’s peculiar suspense.
Of course, to call the Dardennes’ movie “suspenseful,” with its suggestion of genre expectations, almost seems like a diminution of its singular qualities. Le Fils evinces the same disregard for plot and convention as their other movies. When events unfold, they seem to transpire organically: character and circumstance, rather than expedience and authorial whim, drive the narrative. A recurring image—patient shots of people thinking—gets at what makes their movies so compelling. Since nothing is predetermined, epiphanies feel genuinely new, and the twisted paths that lead to them unexpectedly gripping.
Unfailingly disciplined, the Dardennes resist glib payoffs and easy answers. Gourmet’s tour-de-force performance (for which he won a best actor prize at Cannes last year) never begs for sympathy: even as Olivier’s behavior becomes more comprehensible, his intentions remain cloudy, right down to the messy climax. His motivations are also a puzzle to his ex (Isabella Soupart). “Nobody would do this,” she shrieks when she finds out he has taken Francis under his wing. “I know,” he replies, neatly turning reproof into redemption.
Such scenes are never flagged for their momentousness. The downscaling of grand moral conundrums is of a piece with the Dardennes’ larger project. Like their other works, Le Fils is devoted to the minutiae of daily life. Much attention is lavished on the tedious substance of Olivier’s workday. As he goes about his business, it becomes apparent that the trivial is epic to the filmmakers. In showing people at work or in deep thought, the Dardennes accord the same respect for the simple and commonplace that a century of movies have showered on flashier, prettier things.
Whether this is hubris or humility is for the viewer to decide. Rich with ideas and emotion though it is, Le Fils is almost perversely austere. (“Why would anyone want to see work when I go to the movies to get away from work?” moaned one friend.) Perpetually overcast, the movie offers little respite from its lugubrious scenario. Viewers prone to seasickness—and I raise my sheepish hand here—might also be in for a long night: the handheld camerawork is as turbulent as Olivier’s conscience.
For all its wallowing in quotidian gloom, Le Filsis infused with religious feeling. As if Olivier’s vocation were not enough to tip you off, the movie ends in a lumberyard, where Olivier and Francis lug pieces of wood over their shoulders—a figurative march to Calvary. Concerned with questions of forgiveness and acceptance, Le Fils shuns the cathartic pyrotechnics of Todd Field’s In the Bedroom (2001). Ending their movie with an unannounced act of decency, the Dardennes take their resolutely earthbound movie to a rarefied place.