Judge Joel Pearce says it requires some effort, but this unique French film is worth it.
Olivier: Still interested in carpentry?
This recent French film may be the most uneventful thriller I have ever seen. It works, though, far better than it should. In fact, it's absolutely riveting. People who enjoy interesting European films should stop reading this review right now and check it out. The Son is best enjoyed with as little knowledge ahead as possible. Come back when you are done watching it and read the rest. Everyone else may want to keep reading to see if this would be a good choice to watch, as it isn't for all viewers.
Facts of the Case
Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) is a carpenter that works at a vocational training school. He lives alone, is divorced, and seems to have some anger management issues. As the pieces of his past begin to unfold, this starts to make sense.
A new student names Francis (Morgan Marinne) arrives at the school, and Olivier becomes obsessed with the boy. As the connection they have to each other becomes clear, their relationship seems both creepy and frightening. As they get closer, they push toward a confrontation that could mean either retribution for past sins or redemption for them both.
So much of The Son is deceptively simple. Much of the film consists of a handheld camera, following Olivier around as he works, as he drives in his car, as he sits in his home. There is little dialogue, there is no narration, and there is no music. It is the subtle complexities that make the film as fascinating as it is.
Without a great performance from Olivier Gourmet, this film would have been a disaster. Since most of the film consists of watching him go about his day-to-day duties, a dull performance from him would have made The Son unwatchable. Every moment of his performance is so real and true, though, that he is always fascinating to watch. From the very beginning, it is clear that he is a bundle of tension just waiting to erupt. He has a hulking frame, which the camera emphasizes, and he moves awkwardly and abruptly. Because the camera is so close, we are able to see more than we can for many characters. We see the flashes of anger that he tries to hide and control. Rarely before have I seen a film that has the camera focus on a single character for so long, and that makes his performance all the more impressive. We don't get to know Olivier by exposition or narration, but rather by observing the way he behaves in a variety of situations. It's possible to learn a lot about someone by watching them work, but that has rarely been explored in film.
The script does a lot to help ground Gourmet's performance. As I have already said, there is little dialogue and no narration, so I didn't feel like I was being fed all of the information needed to understand the outcome of the film. Instead, I had to watch closely in order to understand what was going on. There are moments when characters say critical pieces of information, but it never feels forced or manufactured. The audience is simply fortunate to be looking on at the time that these things are said. For a while, Olivier's obsession with Francis does not make sense and is not explained, so it is simply creepy to watch. This behavior raises a number of questions and fears, all of which are answered as things are revealed about the characters and their pasts. As more is learned about the connection between Olivier and Francis, my fascination moved to discomfort, and then my discomfort moved to fear, probably at the exact moments that the Dardenne brothers wanted.
The cinematography and technical quality of the filmmaking is incredible as well. While most of the film is shot with a handheld camera, it does not have the ugly, uncontrolled feel that many movies have. Each movement of the camera is carefully controlled, showing faces in the foreground and the things that they are seeing in the background at the same time. There are many cuts, but they feel completely seamless and natural. There is no music anywhere in the film, which sets it apart and makes the moments of silence even creepier. The repetition of the sounds in the carpenter school becomes a natural background rhythm. The sound that is heard is also carefully controlled. Like the script and the performances, the most impressive thing about the technical quality of the film is how simple it seems yet how masterfully it has been designed.
The Sondoes a great job of straddling the line between revenge and redemption. Olivier needs to make a decision about how to deal with Francis, and it's this moral decision that creates the suspense in the film. It's not a film that's exciting because of the constant action that takes place, but rather because there is a constant threat of violence bubbling below the surface.
The technical quality of the disc is quite high. The video transfer is anamorphic, and is presented in its original aspect ratio of about 1.66:1. Because it was shot handheld, the quality of the source print isn't always that good, but the transfer does as much as possible with that print. As a result, there is some grain and the black level isn't that perfect. Considering the shooting conditions, though, I have no real complaints. The sound is quite solid as well. Often, low budget handheld films have terrible sound and dialogue that's hard to hear. The sound in this transfer is excellent, and although it is not a very active 5.1 track, the dialogue is always clear.
While there are not many extras on the disc, they have some value. There are interviews with the Dardennes brothers, as well as with Olivier Gourmet. They talk comprehensively about the making of the film, and these interviews never become self-congratulatory as so many do. There is also a photo gallery.
As much as I enjoy and respect The Son, I can't recommend it to everyone. It moves very slowly and leaves a lot to be assembled by the viewer. Still, for those who enjoy watching films that require some effort on the part of the viewer, this is a fascinating piece of art that redefines what a thriller can be.
The makers of this unique film have been found innocent of all charges. Court dismissed.
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