On a literal level, The Son is a small handful significant plot points mapped across a span of an hour and forty minutes. It takes a while to ease the audience into the entire conflict and only in the final moments does it actually come to any sort of latent and spoken confrontation. Therefore, it would be easy to dismiss The Son as slow and boring.
But it isn’t. There’s something to the slow building of time, the long space in which the audience isn’t sure why the carpentry instructor Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) is behaving so strange. Once we do discover his reason, the film becomes a series of events where we’re anticipating the situation to come to a head, for everything to explode, for the conflict to become physically resolved, or at least verbally expressed.
But the writer/director Dardenne brothers don’t build tension, conflict and suspense to draw the audience into a place of irritation and discomfort. It certainly is uneasy as we’re forced to watch this situation unfold, known what Olivier knows and what those around him do not suspect, but the Dardenne brothers use it more to simply keep the audience interested, not to grip them in a vise.
The film is also sustained around simply trying to understand these characters. As Olivier goes about training these boys, its’ intriguing how he treats them in an ambiguous, yet assertive manner. He demands a certain level of perfection, often asking the boys to redo and correct work, but he’s also never angry, cross or condescending. There’s something complex and disciplined about his actions, something that often defies or transcends the situation.
Part of this, to me, is tied to a Bressonian influence on the Dardenne brothers. The acting style is not so stiff and ridged, but a lot of the scenes and spaces feel like they occupy that minimalistic, detached style which made Bresson one of the most distinctive directors of cinema. The Dardenne brothers do allow for some raw emotions, making those moments powerful in contrast to the otherwise stilted direction.
Their camera style is also very distinct from Bresson. While Bresson was much more still and stiff, the Dardenne brothers actually favor flowing long takes that follow the characters through winding corridors and dark passages, caught up in a flow of persistent motion. This speaks to the Dardennes interest in the idea of character growth while Bresson was more interested in making static characters and then using something external to the camera to suggest a different kind of growth.
I do wonder how much this film relies upon the first impression. A lot of the strength of The Son is being left in the dark for such a long stint of time and then watching, waiting for something to happen once the reveal comes. I wonder if knowing it going in for a second viewing would ruin the immediate engagement I had on the first viewing.
In any case, The Son is a potent little film that embraces a minimalistic approach and uses it to great effect. I can’t help but comparing the Dardenne brothers to Bresson, although I recognize that they’re a bit more dynamic and modern, able to infuse a more literal level of potency within the frame instead of leaving it upon the audience’s reaction like Bresson’s films. Comparisons aside, it’s a great exercise in minimalistic storytelling and the power of the narrative film.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing