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.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.