Crosstalk: THE SON (2002)

November 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

In Crosstalk, Stuart and Brendan tackle a particular subject in a long-form conversation over the course of two days. For our first outing, we discuss Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s 2002 film The Son, its experimental and Catholic elements and the concept of religious cinema.

Brendan: I felt sick the first time I watched The Son. To be honest, I didn’t watch it all the way through, and ended up turning it off after only about twenty minutes. No matter your familiarity with French cinema, arthouse storytelling, or independent filmmaking, the approach that directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne take in this picture can seriously throw viewers for a loop. We begin almost breathing down the neck of the main character, Olivier, separated seemingly by inches from his cheek as he instructs his carpentry apprentices. This claustrophobic headspace is where we spend most of the film, the immediacy of the handheld image taken to an extreme.

The narrative of The Son is, ostensibly, a simple one. The direction of the Dardennes allows scenes to play out for maximum suspense, turning a concise morality play into a vivid thriller. Olivier seems unsettled by the arrival of a young teenager wanting to learn a trade in his shop, and develops an obsession with the boy that seems to harden his attitude toward the other apprentices. About halfway through, we learn that the boy killed Olivier’s own son three years earlier.

The context in which the Dardennes deliver this information is crucial: Olivier confesses his new apprentice’s identity to his estranged wife, who reacts with all the violent bewilderment viewers feel as their perceptions of the characters’ relationships radically shift in the course of a single scene. The scene also begins to define what I consider the experimental tone of The Son, which, while narrating a story with a clear three-act structure, central conflict, and resolution, gradually and confrontationally picks apart our notions of character identification.

Despite our spatial closeness to Olivier for the entire picture, the information delivered in this second-act scene still comes as a shock. Moreover, his wife’s question of his motivation meets with a blank stare, and the viewer here realizes that they, too, have little insight into what Olivier intends to do or why he has taken on the boy. Did this scene have a similar impact on you, Stuart? What do you think of the idea of The Son as essentially avant-garde?

Stuart: Yes, that scene is one that shocks us into an awareness of the rift between the physical actions we have been observing so closely for the past half-hour and the narrative context in which they have transpired. The reveal at once clarifies and obscures the situation: Olivier’s relationship to the boy is explained but now his motives seem even less clear, and it is from this moment that the suspense and dramatic irony that are central to its thriller structure take hold.

My experience of watching the film was a full immersion in a story that left me no comfortable intervals of time or space in which to contemplate what I was watching. It is a film that complicates the expectations we bring to it as a morality play or social-realist parable through its formal qualities. In hindsight, the structure of the film and the arc of its drama are geometrically precise (a man with vengeful intentions takes on the murderer of his child as an apprentice and, at the last minute, comes to forgive him), but the experience of watching the film, the full-throttle immediacy with which the Dardennes plunge the viewer into a world in constant motion, is anything but. They fashion a universe of what I will call compassionate materialism, a hyper-physical world in which the camera’s dogged proximity to its subject becomes an implicit mode of sympathy, and it is all the viewer has to cling to.

The Dardennes’ handheld camera is something unique in cinema. It is itself tense, almost unsure of the next move it should make, darting in pursuit of already half-completed actions and often struggling to keep up. It wants nothing more than to follow Olivier, to look at what he looks at (there are many over-the-shoulder shots in which the camera belatedly racks focus, straining to adopt his visual perspective). It is an almost human presence in the way it imperfectly stalks its subject, and in its persistence it is totally impartial, non-judgmental. We are privy to the fullest physical expression of Olivier’s stress, his anger, his breathless anxiety, without ever quite knowing—for most of the film’s runtime—from where they originate or what exactly we should be feeling about them. All we know is that the camera has singled out this man and thus we are inextricably attached to his predicament—whatever it may be.

The strict physicality of this world, the closed off feelings of its characters, the spasmodic kineticism which characterizes it as something fundamentally unstable—all of these features seem at odds with the narrative intentions of a classically constructed film set on linear course to an edifying conclusion. And yet the film is, miraculously, exactly that, at least in my opinion. Its experimental qualities work in favor of its more conventional moral agenda.

Is there anything else that struck you about The Son’s stylistic aspects? What do you think of its effectiveness as a work of fundamentally moral, or even spiritual, cinema?

Brendan: Formally, I’m struck by the spatial progression that’s at play in this film. The Son actually does get easier to watch as it goes on (if it’s at all possible to ignore, for the sake of argument, the suspense factor), not simply because we become accustomed to its claustrophobia but because Olivier’s world actually opens itself up as we’re clued in to his dilemma and to the people around him. The shots become more open, the camera steps back, and we’re able to watch scenes play out with a bit more distance. There’s a simple narrative motivation for that: now that we know something of the histories of Olivier’s wife and of the boy, Francis, their interactions with Olivier become essential to the story’s advancement and therefore to the camera setups.

In particular, the final scenes, which take place in a vast warehouse of lumber to which Olivier drives Francis (perhaps to murder him, we’re wondering all the while), invoke the broadening of space within the frame as an echo of the fluctuating and solidifying relationship between the two main characters. Again, there’s a very simple explanation for these longer shots: the lumber they handle, each character on one end as Olivier hands a beam down to Francis from atop the pile, is so long that in order to shoot both characters at once the camera must move back.

This dynamic lets the climax echo, quite clearly, an earlier scene that takes place before we’ve learned the truth of Francis’ identity. Francis feels the pressure in this late scene to take on the weight of the beam, which could easily crush him. In its earlier counterpart, Olivier instructs Francis to carry a heavy load on his back up the ladder, urging him up with shouted commands that communicate the potential danger of the situation but also Olivier’s unsentimental mentoring approach; whether this approach is motivated by personal feelings about Francis is impossible to determine even in hindsight. The Dardennes shoot the scene very tightly, moving from Olivier’s face to the back of Francis’ neck as he struggles and finally joining the two as Olivier senses the imminent fall and rushes to alleviate some of the load, the two eventually crashing down together.

But the ultimate instance of the Dardennes’ compositional geometry as a representation of Olivier’s arc of anger, sympathy, and forgiveness comes in the very last shot, a wordless moment between the two characters after their violent climactic confrontation. Loading a beam into the truck, Olivier sees Francis approach and stops. After a few seconds, Francis takes the end of the beam and helps him load it, the camera moving to keep the shot matched to the length of the beam and, therefore, keeping the two on the respective extreme edges of the frame. Yet it’s closeness that in The Son has for so long represented confusion and anxiety, and the beam that keeps Olivier and Francis isolated on separate poles actually manifests for us the film’s most recognizable moment of feeling and of spiritual power.

There’s much more to say about the idea of The Son as a parable, which it contains the broad outlines of but delves deeper than many “spiritual” films I can think of. I have my own thoughts on this, but I’m interested in hearing yours first. Is it enough to call it a spiritual film, or can we argue convincingly that the Dardennes’ allegory is specifically Christian, or even Catholic?

Check back tomorrow for the second half of the conversation.

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