The Son (2002)

2002 (2003 US), New Yorker. Directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. Olivier Gourmet, Morgan Marinne, Isabella Soupart.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?A+
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? +4
Age
Appropriateness
?Teens & Up*

External Ratings

MPAA ?NR USCCB ?NR

Content advisory: A few objectionable phrases; references to remarriage after divorce and extramarital pregnancy. In French with subtitles.

Buy at Amazon.com

The Son

By Steven D. Greydanus

What is forgiveness? It’s easy to say what it isn’t — it isn’t overlooking the trespass, or pretending it didn’t happen; it doesn’t necessarily mean trusting the trespasser, or excusing him from punishment. But it’s also not just pious words or fuzzy feelings.

Actions, not words or feelings, are at the center of The Son, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s challenging, nearly religious parable of humanity, fallenness, and grace. It is challenging, in part, because the Dardenne brothers aren’t at pains to explain characters or relationships, establish motivations, or to set up plot points in the usual fashion. Events unfold with documentary-like restraint, and the rhythms are those of ordinary life, full of mundane activity and repetition. What matters is not how the characters feel, but what they do.

A tightly wound, middle-aged carpenter named Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) works with young boys at some sort of center. His inner life, his motives and emotions, aren’t revealed to us, and he doesn’t seem preoccupied with them himself. He wears a leather back brace, and has perhaps been injured at some point; and his work itself may be a similar sort of prop against some injury of his past.

Presently a youth arrives at the center whose name is Francis (Morgan Marinne) and whose presence has a strange effect on Olivier. At first it seems that nothing may come of it, but various chance circumstances lead Olivier to take stock of his life and what he has lost. And he makes a radical choice: He will teach this boy carpentry.

Why? Why does he do it, and what does it matter? Far too many reviews of The Son have robbed readers by explaining what the film invites the viewer to discover. Suffice to say that in nearly any other film, as critic A. O. Scott shrewdly observes, the situation between Olivier and Francis would almost inevitably lead either to vigilante-style vengeance or else overwrought, touchy-feely navel-gazing. In plotting a third course, The Son is in virtually uncharted waters. To watch this film is to breathe fresh air and to see stars in the sky that can never be seen from the all-too-frequented trade routes followed by other films.

Along with his back brace, other facts about Olivier are clues to his character and nature. The precision with which he judges and estimates measurements and distances is part of the uncompromising way he looks at the world; at a glance he can identify Francis’ height to within a fraction — literally taking the measure of the man — and can also specify the distance separating them. As a craftsman and teacher he takes a hands-on approach, working the wood, working with the boys at the center, insisting that the end result be straight and true.

These aren’t mere metaphorical conceits. The story is too concrete, too mundane for allegorizing. Olivier’s exactness and precision as a carpenter isn’t a symbol for an uncompromising moral outlook; they are rather the same trait, applied in two different spheres.

In the same way, Olivier’s decision to teach Francis carpentry is no symbolic gesture, as it might be for another man. In Citizen Kane, when Kane’s old friend Leland begins a scathing critical review of Kane’s wife’s inauspicious debut as an opera singer, Kane fires Leland — but not before finishing Leland’s review just as Leland might have written it himself. "He was always trying to prove something," Leland said later. By teaching Francis carpentry, Olivier isn’t trying to prove anything. It’s simply the only way this craftsman knows of going about what needs to be done.

Echoes of the gospel story are unavoidable. Olivier’s trade, carpentry, recalls the occupation of Jesus and of his foster father St. Joseph; and from the title The Son we infer the presence of a father, with possible resonances with St. Joseph, God the Father, or both.

Eventually it becomes clear that the premise of The Son shares much in common with certain grimmer parables of Jesus, parables that involve shocking violence and end with wrath falling upon the wicked. But the parallels are far from exact, and there is reason to think that in the end the story may wind up dimly but distinctly resembling one of the best-loved and most reassuring of the parables.

But, again, The Son is no allegory. Olivier is first and foremost a very ordinary and imperfect man in very imperfect circumstances (he is divorced, his wife with another man). Gourmet’s performance as Olivier, which took the top prize at Cannes, is almost definitive in its mundaneness and lack of actorly affect; he never asks for our sympathy or admiration, and certainly never invites us to consider Olivier as any sort of archetype or symbolic figure. He is simply who he is, as plain and unassuming as wood and sandpaper.

The true challenge posed by the film is not piecing together the story, nor teasing out its meaning, but embracing its implications in our own lives. Not that The Son is didactic or a "message" film — it isn’t — but it is one of the most profoundly moral and human films I have seen in years.

On first viewing, The Son’s rigorous method makes for comparatively demanding viewing. The Dardennes aren’t interested in entertaining the viewer, but in something far more valuable. The difficulty of the first viewing, though, becomes irrelevant in light of its rewards, and subsequent viewings only deepen those rewards.

Tags: Dardennes, Drama, Foreign Language, Religious Themes

Related Content

Review: Cinderella Man (2005)

A- | ***½ | +2| Teens & Up*

Here Crowe overturns another Hollywood convention in an equally strong performance as a boxer who isn’t a morally checkered, socially alienated single man with a history of extracurricular violence and troubling relationship issues (cf. Rocky, Raging Bull, The Boxer), but a wholly decent, self-controlled, devoted family man. He’s not only Cinderella, he’s Prince Charming too.

Continue reading this review >

Review: The Incredibles (2004)

A+ | **** | +2| Kids & Up*

The Incredibles is exhilarating entertainment with unexpected depths. It’s a bold, bright, funny and furious superhero cartoon that dares to take sly jabs at the culture of entitlement, from the shallow doctrine of self-esteem that affirms everybody, encouraging mediocrity and penalizing excellence, to the litigation culture that demands recompense for everyone if anything ever happens, to the detriment of the genuinely needy.

Continue reading this review >

Review: Life is Beautiful (1997)

A | **** | +3| Teens & Up*

Contriving to hide the boy from camp officials (who soon put the other children to death), Guido tells Giosue that the concentration camp is actually an elaborate role-playing game in which the "players" are competing for points in the hopes of winning a real battle tank. From then on, Guido will take any risk, court any danger, to maintain his son’s illusion that none of it is real.

Continue reading this review >

Review: Finding Nemo (2003)

A | **** | +2| Kids & Up*

(New review for 3-D rerelease) Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo is the best father-son story in all of Hollywood animation, and maybe animation generally. It’s also a stunningly gorgeous film that exploits the potential of computer animation like no film before it and few films after it.

Continue reading this review >

Review: Frequency (2000)

A | ***½ | +3| Teens & Up*

This is a film about the legacy of fatherhood and the inheritance of sonship, about the unbreakable connection and the unbridgeable gap between one generation and the next. It is a celebration of masculinity, but it contemplates how men relate to women as an index of their manhood.

Continue reading this review >

Review: The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

A- | ***½ | +2| Kids & Up*

The Emperor’s New Groove is really about another new groove — Disney animation’s. By 2000, the old Disney-as-usual wasn’t selling any more, and Disney was ready to begin trying new things.

Continue reading this review >

Review: A Man for All Seasons (1966)

A+ | **** | +4| Kids & Up

The screenplay, well adapted by Robert Bolt from his own stage play, is fiercely intelligent, deeply affecting, resonant with verbal beauty and grace. Scofield, who for years starred in the stage play before making the film, gives an effortlessly rich and layered performance as Sir Thomas More, saint and martyr, the man whose determined silence spoke more forcefully than words, and who then spoke even more forcefully by breaking it.

Continue reading this review >

Review: Monsieur Vincent (1947)

A+ | **** | +4| Teens & Up

Monsieur Vincent, director Maurice Cloche’s beautifully crafted, award-winning biopic of St. Vincent de Paul, celebrates the saint’s single-minded devotion to the poor without romanticizing the objects of his devotion and recipients of his charity.

Continue reading this review >

Review: Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

A+ | ***½ | +3| Kids & Up*

L’Chaim! Life itself, joyous and tragic, is the subject of the boisterous, comic, heartbreaking vision of Fiddler on the Roof.

Continue reading this review >

Review: My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

A- | **** | +2-1| Kids & Up*

How can I describe the inexplicable power of My Neighbor Totoro, Hayao Miyazaki’s timeless, ageless family film? It is like how childhood memories feel, if you had a happy childhood — wide-eyed and blissful, matter-of-factly magical and entrancingly prosaic, a world with discovery lurking around every corner and an inexhaustible universe in one’s backyard.

Continue reading this review >

Review: The Lion King (1994)

C+ | **½ | +1| Kids & Up*

Chronologically, The Lion King stands between the striking triumphs of the early Disney renaissance (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin) and the bumpy deterioration of the latter 1990s (Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, etc.). One way or another, it’s at the turning point between Disney’s creative renewal and its eventual decline. Fans might locate it near the pinnacle, along with Beauty and the Beast, but I don’t feel the love.

Continue reading this review >

Blog: Finding Nemo [Video]

Finding Nemo in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review.

Continue reading this post >

Article: Top 10 Movie Dads

Picking the top 10 movie dads was both easier and harder than picking the top 10 movie moms. Easier, because there were more candidates to choose from — and harder for the same reason!

Continue reading this article >

Coming Soon

Recently Added

In Theaters – Latest

In Theaters – All