It’s tricky to review The Son without raising viewers’ expectations. To rave about the film’s artistry might create a certain anticipation of being dazzled. But, “the truth must dazzle gradually,” and The Son — like all of the Dardenne Brothers’ films — is the antithesis of what most moviegoers consider “entertainment.” It is, rather, a story that unfolds without instructions about how to feel or think about what we're seeing, and with no exposition to acquaint us with the characters or the context. In other words, watching this film takes patience and contemplation.
Olivier Gourmet won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002 for his role as Olivier, an ordinary man in overalls and thick glasses, who teaches young boys how to measure, cut, and construct simple but solid things. But Olivier seems agitated. When a new boy named Francis (Morgan Marinne) arrives at the school, Olivier begins to behave strangely, dashing down hallways so he can spy on the newcomer. Viewers may well suspect that Olivier is a sexual predator. But the truth is much more interesting. To say more about it would be to rob you of the reward of solving this puzzle on your own.
By following Olivier through routines again and again, the filmmakers begin to reveal what is important to him — accuracy, craftsmanship, a process of refinement, discipline, kindness. The most incidental elements of his daily life begin to resonate with metaphoric significance. As Olivier carefully trains the boys in the importance of exactness, of cutting things “just so” and making sure the lines are straight, he speaks to them about their lives. As he carries heavy beams around the shop, he gives us a picture of the hard work of bearing one’s moral responsibility, and even more, to take and bear someone else’s cross.
Even if the Dardennes were to insist that their characters have no religious affiliation, Olivier’s choices still add up to a passion play. This is as pure a “movie parable” as you’re likely to find.
– Jeffrey Overstreet