The Son (Le Fils)- Jean-Pierre/Luc Dardenne France 2002 - Olivier Gourmet
Viewed Riverside Studio - 6 Aug 06 - Double Bill with L’Enfant. Ticket price £6-00
There is the possibility…of grace
The setting is a youth training centre in Belgium where young men without skills are sent to learn practical trades. The opening shot is of a functional overhead light fitting that castes its harsh glare down onto the floor and walls of an adapted featureless partitioned industrial unit.
The unit is revealed in several long shots as the camera tracks down from the light and follows the flow of the action as it passes through a world of plasterboard, metal personal lockers, concrete floors, unit shelving and teaching areas. It is an impoverished visual world with its low level fluorescent lighting creating the illusion of a monochrome grey environment in which little colour is able to bleed through. It is a soulless world populated by monosyllabic young men. An institutional place which however well intentioned has a tangible deadness at its core.
The camera is mainly positioned behind Olivier the main character who is the carpentry trainer at the centre. With the camera filming over the shoulder of Olivier we become conscious of the space in which Olivier moves and how he relates to and operates in his space. As the viewer follows him in the long camera takes through the corridors of training centre, up and down the stairs, into the office, the car park, town and home we latch onto his interest in a young trainee whom he has accepted on his course after initially rejecting him. Always outside Olivier the camera never makes any claim to be acting as a proxy for Olivier’s consciousness.
There is something in the way we experience Olivier’s actions particularly as a trainer that is very humbling, even contradictory. We see Olivier teach his charges the simple rudimentary woodworking skills: how to carry lengths of timber safely, how to use the set square, how to measure correctly. But he brings to this practice an intrinsic message about the dignity of labour and a belief that the simple habit of attention to detail is basic to seeing the world in the way proper to the trade and dignity of the carpenter. Olivier imparts his knowledge without affect and with few words; there is an innate conviction at the core of his sparse teaching style. A sparsity that is carried over into what the Dardennes show of his personal world. Olivier - divorced - lives alone in a small apartment where he carries out the rituals of his existence - doing remedial exercises for his injured back( he wears a large leather brace) and mechanically going through the routine of preparing and eating bachelor food. It seems a world without hope; a world of day to day existence and world whose greyness and monotony has perhaps been triggered by the death of his only son. But we don’t know. Understanding of Olivier’s world is always a question weighing up the possibilities inherent in different readings of the signs emitted by him in the film. We are allowed no access to Olivier’s internal state of mind. (Indeed we have no access to internal states of mind other than our own) Perhaps Olivier was like this before the death of his son. Dardennes give us no access to Olivier’s consciouness, either through sentimentality of his actions or his words. We can only arrive at tentative understandings of his inner world through reading the potentialities in the signs he gives out in his praxis.
There is something in the Dardennes’ films that I have found one dimensional, monochromatic. They seem over determined with both characters and action severely constrained by situation and environment. The story line is filtered along one dimension with all tracks closed off except the intended outcome. They are behaviourist soap operas, worthy in approach but ultimately uninteresting as there is little development from the original thesis. However Le Fils is different: the controlled discipline over affective response(in Olivier) in the scenario, the intelligence of the camera, the integrity of the acting open up an avenue of light into the film so that the provoked dramatic situation, the confrontation of the father of the murdered child with his killer excites the latent potential of the material to effect multiple possible lines of development.
The extreme situation of the encounter provokes neither melodrama nor affected expression of sentiment. Rather it engenders questions about Olivier’s consciousness, his state of mind. Because the viewer is presented with a situation which puts into play strong emotions but has little affective information about how these emotions are effecting Olivier, the viewer has to posit, to interpose from the action what is happening to the states of mind of Olivier. In Le Fils the one and only central issue is the state of mind of Olivier and what changes are taking place in his engagement with the world consequent to changes in his consciouness. From what we are shown there is the possibility at the end of the film that Olivier has been touched by grace. Perhaps Olivier at some moment (whether for a second or for eternity) has accepted the gift of grace, an overwhelming ability to live and to be without desire, to live without ego to move in the world with love. For the viewer it is an overwhelming thought that such a thing should even be possible in this world. Of course other possibilities, more mundane, also present themselves as other possible explanations for understanding Olivier. Explanations that are more mechanistic: perhaps his behavioural responses to the young boy are driven by a substitution / replacement impulse, or by the desire on his part to taste the thrill of forbidden fruit, and so on the list is of course long because we don’t have access to Olivcier’s state of mind, it is only something we can infer.
But it is the idea of grace that somehow insists as the most potent suffusing channel for coming to an understanding of Olivier’s actions and movement during the final frames of the film. In making a film about the possibility of grace as a state of consciousness, the Dardennes are working outside the limited confines of most cinematic drama, where the usual states of mind portrayed amount to no more than the obvious easily read emotions - anger, sadness, happiness, unhappiness etc. and the actions that stem therefrom. A state of grace can perhaps only ever be a fleeting possibility. It is not a state that can ever be laid claim to but only inferred from outer signs. For the Dardennes to evoke such a possibility for the viewer is a testament to the discipline they possess as film makers who understand the use of signage.
However such discipline is hard won and easily lost. Accompanying Le Fils on the same bill was L’Enfant that lacks the disciplined and sure understanding of signs that made Le Fils an assemblage of the potential and possible. In L’Enfant the story is probably overdominated by the physical presence of a young child, a symbol rather than a sign. In L’Enfant, the Dardennes instead of directing signs that allow the viewer to see and evaluate what’s happening allow the film to dissipate into mawkish sentimentality and one dimensional story telling. To see both films on the same bill (both good prints) was to see the difference between the success and failure of the Dardennes and to understand that their strengths lie in the registration of signs and ideas related to the internal states of mind of their protagonists.
Adrin Neatrour 14 Aug 06