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    The Son

    "The Son" eventually rises

    The Belgian import "The Son" spends more time than you'd want chasing a master carpenter around a trade school for reasons that aren't clear until near the end when undercurrents you barely knew were there erupt in one heart-pounding scene.


    "The Son" is arduous watching. Most of this Belgian film is a voyeuristic view into something you probably didn't think you needed a voyeuristic view into — the carpentry shop of a trade school. For the better part of an hour and three-quarters we minutely observe the skilled workings of a master carpenter with a mixture of admiration and bafflement — mostly bafflement. Did I ask for a lesson in how to fold a ruler / carry a board up a ladder / make a wooden box, you'll ask yourself more than once.

    Original title: Le Fils.
    Written and directed by: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne.
    Cast: Olivier Gourmet, Morgan Marinne, Isabella Soupart, Rˇmy Renaud, Nassim Hassa•ni, Kevin Leroy, Fˇlicien Pitsaer, Fabian Marnette, Jimmy Deloof..
    Cinematography: Alain Marcoen.
    In French with English subtitles.
    New York Film Festival 2002

    The Magdalene Sisters
    Man Without a Past
    My Mother's Smile
    The Son
    Talk to Her

    Festival site
    Then hints of intrigue will creep in, leading to one heart-pounding scene that may or may not redeem the rest of the film for you but whose power can't be denied.

    In the hyperreal style of "Rosetta" (by the same directors) and "Human Resources," a handheld video camera frantically follows Olivier (Olivier Gourmet), an unremarkable-looking middle-aged middle manager who carries little weight in his organization but knows his craft in unimaginable detail. His movements are fast, precise and efficient; his knowledge of every aspect of wood and carpentry are formidable. Conversely, his social skills are imperceptible, although we become aware (very slowly, as no attempt is made to explain the action — we just have to pick up on the vibes) that he was once married, as the one woman in his orbit (Isabella Soupart) turns out to be his ex-wife. He is a very talented nerd, you might say, somewhat past his prime in life but in his stride at work. Why we're supposed to be interested in this man is not clear, unless it's an appreciation of the skills of the craftsman — and that's clearly a big part of the film's intention.

    We become hyperaware of all the things that could go violently wrong in carpentry, with its power saws and sharp tools, heavy lifting and precarious heights. And all the more so when one person knows all about the dangers and another knows nothing.  

    Then things begin to get a little strange. Knowing every nook, cranny and sight line in his factory, Olivier darts around when nobody's looking and spies on both the front offices and his young apprentices. It turns out that the personnel department has a new recruit, and Olivier, having had an inkling of what was going on before he was even asked, abruptly refuses to take the young fellow on. Later, thinking better of it, he has an idea and finds the kid a job.

    What very slowly emerges is that Olivier has a dark, shocking history with the young Francis (Morgan Marinne) — and, more importantly, he has the advantage. He knows who Francis is but Francis hasn't recognized him. Gradually, we become hyperaware of all the things that could go violently wrong in the carpentry trade, with its power saws and sharp tools, heavy lifting and precarious heights. And all the more so when one person knows all about the dangers and another knows nothing.

    "The Son" is one of several recent French-language films calculated to foster appreciation of the workplace and the noble skilled worker, and not necessarily the best of them. The hyperkinetic focus on Olivier's every movement in his shop (and equally so at home) fills you with respect but not necessarily fascination. But for those with the patience to stick it out, the graying sky does eventually bring a raging storm — Olivier's gathering anger eventually overwhelms his fastidious sense of control and the resulting scene is one to remember. The end of the movie will shock and surprise you, especially if you've been lulled into thinking it's just a movie about sawing wood.

    JANUARY 10, 2003

    Reader comments on The Son:

  • Le Fils   from Julian Jackson, Apr 10, 2003

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