This stylish Belgian indie convincingly pits a teacher against a teenager, but all the showy camerawork is a pain in the neck.
“The Son,” the latest movie from the Belgian directing team of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, is an interesting piece of filmmaking, if interesting is what you’re after. In “The Son,” the Dardennes (“La Promesse,” “Rosetta”) are loyal slaves to their technique: Here they’re obsessively devoted to sophisticated-primitive camera angles — most of the time their lens is pointed searchingly, and obtusely, toward the back of the lead actor’s neck. The sight of that pale, pudgy nape becomes a symbol of all that we can never know about his character: his desires and motivations, the deepest, most painful secrets of his heart.
But how much we actually care about the back of Olivier Gourmet’s neck depends on how much of an emotional investment we’re prepared to make in the Dardennes’ movie. They meet us only a few steps of the way and turn their backs on us as we stumble earnestly through their spare, barren landscape of a story.
That story’s lonely central figure is Olivier (Olivier Gourmet, who has also appeared in “La Promesse” and “Rosetta”), a quiet, reclusive carpentry instructor at a vocational center who becomes distressed when a new pupil, 16-year-old Francis (Morgan Marinne), is placed in his class. We don’t know why Francis’ presence troubles Olivier so much, and it’s a while before we find out; the Dardennes (who also wrote the screenplay) know that the only way to keep us on the hook is to let the mystery unfold slowly. But despite the fact that we see little of Olivier’s face — his eyes, when the Dardennes’ camera shows them to us, are unreadable apostrophes behind thick eyeglass lenses — we do see that Olivier has become somewhat obsessed with Francis. Olivier’s ex-wife, Magali (Isabella Soupart), who knows Francis’ secret, is shocked and horrified that Olivier would take such an interest in him: She can’t read his motives or his feelings; he’s even more of a resolutely closed book to her than he is to us.
When we finally learn precisely what the bond between Olivier and Francis is, it’s easy enough to understand why Olivier’s feelings are so murky and conflicted. The emotional core of “The Son” is sound enough, if you can get to it. The trouble is that the Dardennes demand that we work toward those feelings by suffering through their allegedly daring, innovative technique: The movie’s style (all shaky hand-held swoops and claustrophobic close-ups, punctuated by the occasional annoying whine of a random power tool) seems purposely set up as an obstacle course. The truth is that the Dardennes’ story might seem too simple, too thin, without it; the tale needs all the extra weight it can get.
You don’t need to work hard to figure out the effect the Dardennes and their cinematographer Alain Marcoen are after: The camera’s movement is an accessory to, if not a metaphor for, Olivier’s isolation, a way of mirroring the sense of disquiet that buzzes around him relentlessly. The style suits the story perfectly, and yet stubbornly refuses to serve it. From looking at those miles of wobbly footage of the back of Olivier’s head, we learn just how much we can never know about Olivier. But more than that, we learn just how far the Dardennes will go to make their point, over and over again.
Past a certain degree, unknowability is just plain boring. But even though Gourmet’s performance is deliberately opaque, it’s not dismissable. Actors act with their bodies, not just with their faces, and it’s a testament to Gourmet that he tells us as much about Olivier as he does, considering that he’s repeatedly shot from the most oblique angles. Most telling is the weirdly self-assured wobble of Olivier’s walk. The movie suggests strongly that he’s a timid guy, perhaps not terrifically successful with women. And yet he moves with an almost feral confidence, like a normally shy house cat who turns into a jungle creature when he doesn’t know he’s being watched.
Marinne, as Francis, is a cloudier case. His character’s feelings are supposed to be almost as thickly veiled as Olivier’s (the two characters were clearly written as awkward mirror images of each other), but Marinne doesn’t have enough skill to make such a subtle parallel work. We know that Francis has feelings. He’s too zonked-out to be confused in the typical teenager way (at one point he makes a reference to the medication he’s taking to help him sleep), but we can see that he’s nevertheless weighed down by nameless, oppressive troubles. Even so, Marinne doesn’t let us deeply enough into the character to figure out what’s going on with him. We’re left squarely outside his head, which was probably the Dardennes’ intent; still, you can’t escape the feeling that, simply out of carelessness, they’ve hung a young actor out to dry.
Whatever allure “The Son” has lies in its very remoteness, in its resolute refusal to show us all but the most delicate emotional vibrations. It also moves very sluggishly, which gives us plenty of time to make sure we’re catching on to its alleged multiple layers of depth and meaning. We’re then given more time to check and double-check our responses. And yet at the movie’s abrupt end, we’re left wondering if we really, really got it. That’s not such a bad thing — conclusions are almost always better when they’re not tidy — but we’re also left wondering if it was all worth the time and effort. Sometimes a movie can give you too much time to think.
More Related Stories
- Justin Timberlake: I'm a mediocre folk singer!
- Ray Manzarek, founding member of The Doors, dies at 74
- Beware of book blurbs
- Did a Salon excerpt ruin Penn Jillette's chance to win "Celebrity Apprentice"?
- Zach Galifianakis to take formerly homeless woman to "Hangover 3" premiere
- Seth MacFarlane will not host Oscars again
- "SNL's" uncomfortable Garner/Affleck moment
- "Celebrity Apprentice" finale ratings hit a new low
- Worst National Anthem fails
- The truth in Kanye's anti-prison rap
- Stephen Colbert to UVA: "You must always make the path for yourself"
- "Game of Thrones," season 3, episode 8: A salon
- Bieber booed, Miguel falls on fan at Billboard Awards
- "Mad Men" recap: Love, acid and whores. Lots of whores
- Taylor Swift leads Billboard winners
- “Game of Thrones” recap: “We must do our duty”
- "The Unwinding": What's gone wrong with America
- Michael J. Fox wins: The best and worst of the new fall shows
- First look: The Coens' marvelous folk-music odyssey
- New York's most persecuted subway artist?
- James Franco: "I really felt I was in conversation with Faulkner"
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11