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The Son (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) 2002
The style of The Son, the new film from social realist filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, is inappropriate for its subject matter because it presents the moral quandary of the plot with an undeniable, and unwelcome, bias. The very first shot of the movie shows Olivier (inexplicable Cannes prize winner Olivier Gourmet), the forgiving carpenter who is at the center of this tale, peeking around a corner as he spies on a coworker. For the next half hour or so, we watch him as he behaves erratically, arousing our suspicion, with no way to explain what is causing him to act the way he is. We slowly come to understand that heís been thrown off course by the arrival of a young boy, but itís anyoneís guess as to why. The filmmaking, which is claustrophobic and closely tied to the heat of the moment, puts us alongside him as he roams about his apartment and the reform school where he works. All of this is done to bring us closer to his moment to moment impulses, I suppose, but it fails, because the directors attempt to stir up suspense in the situation by withholding crucial information from us. Since itís impossible to understand why Olivier is acting so suspiciously, one has to take the cues that the filmís technique gives to make a judgment on him. Since heís shot from behind with a hand-held camera as heís spying and lurking, itís difficult not to have a negative appraisal of his character by the time the Big Revelation is exposed.
Of course, thereís nothing inherently wrong with confounding audience expectation in a film, and the lengths that The Son goes to do so is almost impressive, even if such crass directorial subterfuge is an odd fit with this brand of realism. Nonetheless, when considering the moral implications of pushing the audience toward making such rash judgments, it becomes almost disgusting. After Olivierís secret is made known to the audience, the movie begins questioning whether heíll respond with forgiveness or vengeance, and though thereís not much about his actions that makes him inherently unlikable, the presentation of them vastly colors the possibility of a positive judgment. The movie is made like a suspense thriller, and watching it the realization arises that thereís enough suspense in the central decision that any sort of artificially drummed up tension is wholly unnecessary. Such a disparity between form and content is galling because of the seemingly infinite rift between the intentions of the story and the intentions of the filmmakers. A better understanding of how Olivier acts when he isnít placed under pressure or different camera angles in a few key scenes (e.g. was there a rabbit?) would have made a world of difference in allowing the audience to look at Olivier with a clear mind.
Everything about The Son seems calculated so that the filmmakers can scorn us for jumping to conclusions about the behavior of people of a certain class and vocation. For viewers that wouldnít jump to those conclusions on their own, the Dardennes stack the deck visually so that the hope of common decency in the working man becomes absurd. By lowering audience expectation to such a degree, they make any shred of dignity or grace seem absurdly inflated. At the end of The Son, the audience is expected to be grateful for being shown that there exists morality among the masses, but only someone wildly out of touch with humanity would be surprised by such a conclusion. That the Dardennes have the nerve after all of this chicanery to show a figurative body bag in the last shot, seemingly giving the audience what they expected to see come out of the situation (if only because they created that expectation in the first place) is infuriating.