The Son (Le Fils)- Jean-Pierre/Luc Dardenne France 2002 – Olivier Gourmet

The Son (Le Fils)- Jean-Pierre/Luc Dardenne France 2002 – Olivier Gourmet

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 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

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

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

Author: Adrin Neatrour

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