Crosstalk: THE SON (2002) Pt. 2

November 24, 2013 § 1 Comment

Stuart and Brendan here conclude the conversation begun yesterday about Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s 2002 film The Son.

Stuart: It was hard for me to watch The Son without thinking about Catholicism. My introduction to the Dardennes was the film they made immediately after The Son, L’Enfant (2005), and it struck me as unmistakably Catholic in its thematic handling of sin, penance, and, in its heartrending final shot, absolution. But there is nothing explicitly religious about any of their movies, and quite a few critics go so far as to call their films secular, or even atheistic, morality tales. I continue to hold the belief that there is something essentially Catholic about their movies—the brothers were raised Catholic, and their humanism seems filtered through that lens. The Dardennes as an authorial presence within their films tend to withhold judgment of their characters while still treating sin and the process by which it is ameliorated with the utmost gravity. And to varying degrees, each of their films ends on a note that suggests, in some form or fashion, the bestowal of grace.

The ending of The Son strikes me as a kind of miracle, and your analysis of the spatial power of the final shot goes part of the way toward explaining why. The world that the Dardennes have depicted up to this point is so violent, entropic, hardly prone to anything suggesting order or moral clarity. There is nothing within the movie’s diegesis that indicates, at least to me, that this unity is anything more than a temporary lapse. As Olivier and Francis silently fold the tarp over the beams, I feel that their momentary peace is in danger of slipping away, of falling back into the convulsive violence of the earlier confrontation. It is here that the Dardennes cut to credits, and it is exactly this that I believe to be miraculous. In ending the film here, they consecrate this interstitial and in many respects unremarkable moment as a finality—Olivier’s and Francis’s bond as adoptive father and son, manifesting itself in a minute of screen-time so fragile, so haunted by hostilities only freshly subsided, has been deemed, in this cut to black, an everlasting permanence.

All of the Dardennes’ movies begin in medias res, as if the camera has dropped in at an arbitrary juncture of a story that has long been set in motion, and they end likewise—the camera, having finally witnessed a rare moment of grace, feels free to take immediate leave. It is only when the credits to The Son finally roll that I feel like I can catch my breath, and it remains one of the most powerfully affecting movies I have ever seen. What are your thoughts on the film’s Catholicism, and do you have similar feelings about the film’s ending?

Brendan: You have the advantage on me; this was my first Dardennes film, so I can’t say whether their filmmaking seems particularly religious across a wider body of work. I think that your articulation of the ending as “miraculous”, and your description of their tendency to end with a “bestowal of grace” does seem accidental rather than incidental, that is, not an attribute that exists explicitly within the text, though it’s of a piece with the gravity of their worldview.

This is something that has to recur throughout discussions of religious cinema. We’re familiar with so-called “faith-based” films in America, movies produced by independent studios for evangelical purposes and with the goal of proselytizing. Pictures like these deal explicitly with religion by having characters discuss how God can help them through a conflict. They include scenes of prayer and invoke Scripture at dramatic junctures. Absent these references to religion, though, how can we call one film “Catholic” or “Christian” as opposed to another? Don’t we, as religious critics, automatically bring our worldviews into our analyses of a film?

There’s much more to say on that subject, but let me switch gears for a moment and say why I consider The Son to be a Christian film. I said before that it contains the outline of a parable, so aptly (if flippantly) put by Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine as “How Joseph Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Judas Iscariot”. Now, the viewer knows absolutely nothing of Olivier’s late son except that at one point, he was in a car that Francis tried to steal. But identifying a martyred son as Christ, particularly when the father is identified as a carpenter, seems a reasonable comparison. I think that your analysis of the Dardennes’ universe as one in which all action pivots on sin and penance further lends weight to these allegorical elements.

But what makes The Son not simply Christian allegory but an incisive and effective work of cinema is its very investigation into religious types and images vis-a-vis the moving image. We have all seen images of Joseph and the young Christ as carpenters, but outside of the fairly risible “I made a chair!” scene in The Passion of the Christ, the weight of this symbol has rarely been investigated fully on film. We see carpentry here as a trade which boys like Francis can learn as they recover from the crises of their past. It’s not necessary to give us information about the other apprentices in Olivier’s shop, but could we extrapolate that they, like Francis, have run afoul of the law or some moral order and are in need of honest work? Consider the pressures on Olivier as a mentor to these young men, and his curt teaching style.

Most of all, I’m moved by the final scenes in that warehouse, as the bereaved Olivier quizzes Francis on the different types of wood in the shop. Here we see carpentry as a form of grieving, a way of compartmentalizing and understanding the natural world in a universe that has cruelly and unfairly taken a child from his father. That’s the density of this picture, one that contains myriad philosophies and sciences within the same scenes. Of course, that’s how we, as Catholics, see our own religion: one that contains within it all knowledge of the universe and all its mysteries, with a name that means simply “universal”.

Can you think of other instances in which the Dardennes deal with religious symbolism? How do you think we can approach classifying films as Catholic or spiritual, or is there a different way to approach the issue?

Stuart: First let me say that if I believe there to be a miraculous element to the ending, it is less as a miracle of God than as a miracle of art, and probably has more than a little something to do with Paul Schrader’s rather vague conception of the ‘transcendental moment’ in cinema. The Son, for the vast majority of its running time, strikes me as a film frighteningly devoid of a spiritual order that only comes into being the moment it ends. The cut to black constitutes an imposition of explicit rather than implicit meaning on the text and tells us with clarity and concision that Francis has assumed the role of Olivier’s adoptive son.

Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, discussing the Dardennes’ first two features, has said, “The moments at which La promesse and Rosetta end appear to be precisely the moments at which the filmmakers choose to stop imagining what comes next.” There is an arbitrariness to their endings, which often feel like premature severances of violent narratives still in visceral motion. And yet in most of their films, including The Son, the Dardennes choose to end immediately after their protagonists have undergone their most grueling ordeals—in the case of L’Enfant and The Kid with a Bike, suffering for wrongdoing they have committed earlier in the film—in quiet moments that suggest some form of atonement for past sins.

I love what you have to say about carpentry. When I watched the film, I had Christ the carpenter on the mind and yet felt unsure of how to form an allegorical connection. Carpentry in the film, insofar as it is governed by measured physical actions and the aspiration to geometrical accuracy, serves as a kind of orderly and disciplined respite from an unstable moral universe. I even feel that the camera is at its most graceful and relaxed as it observes Olivier and his apprentices (whom I assumed to be wayward youths, similarly assigned to the trade center as a part of some social justice initiative) at work, as if this workshop is a world apart. I’m at a loss for other images or scenarios from their filmography that are likewise religiously, or even figuratively, charged, though their consistently reverent treatment of reformed youths, pregnant mothers, and the act of forgiveness all carry, to me, a specifically Christian import.

As to what makes a movie Catholic or Christian, I have always used an auteurist rubric, by which I mean the identification of some kind of religious influence on the filmmaker that consistently manifests itself in his or her work. With the Dardennes, I suspected something Catholic about the moral worldview of L’Enfant when I first saw it, but was hesitant to say so with any certainty until watching more of their films and reading up on their biographies. The reasoning usually follows, deductively, that such-and-such is a Catholic movie because it was directed by an evidently Catholic filmmaker. I wonder, though, if there is a less doctrinaire method of identifying Catholicism, or any religious influence, in cinema. What alternatives, if any, have you considered?

Brendan: Developing a coherent theory for evaluating the religious content of a film might be beyond the boundaries of this piece, but I think we can see the kernels of a systematic approach in your initial, auteurist gestures. Such an interrogation could follow the many accepted theories of film analysis. Might we, for example, find something of the hierarchy of the Church represented in the integrated production system of the major studio pictures in the 1920s through the ‘40s? We can also take an historical angle, looking at films through the major spiritual and religious movements of the day. I think Kent Jones argued rather persuasively for such an approach in his review of The Master for Film Comment last year.

But I think it’s clear that any such theory has to move beyond extratextual factors like the faith of its creators, because spiritual cinema doesn’t do us much good if it simply reinforces what we know – which is why the current strain of Christian, proselytizing cinema is disdained not just among the press but among cinephiles in general. The film I consider to be the most important representation of spirituality and religion onscreen, Au hasard Balthazar, is engaged intellectually to an almost blasphemous level with the precepts of Catholicism. Through confrontational editing and a conflicted narrative, Bresson shows us what cinema can actually do with religion, which goes far beyond merely carrying over symbolism from literature and other visual arts.

Plus, then we wouldn’t get to claim for our own films like Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which presents a vision of Britain both tailored to the specific life story of its protagonist and cosmic in its implications that it seems to me essentially Catholic. And there are so many angles to explore even with that one film: the vision of the afterlife the filmmakers would later present in A Matter of Life and Death, Britain’s contentious history with the Church, and Blimp’s depiction of Deborah Kerr’s character as a type of Eternal Feminine. We have to do more than indulge these limited impulses, though, and seriously investigate how our favored medium carries over something intangible from the physical reality it photographs or simulates. It’s work that needs doing.

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