9.5/10 (Near Perfect)
The Belgian Dardenne brothers (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) are renowned (mainly in Europe) for their intense minimalist dramas. Following on the success of Rosetta (1999) which won the prestigious Palm d’Or and La Promese (1996), the brothers embarked on the rigorously stylistic Le Fils (2002). I must issue a warning for readers: any mention of the plot ruins this film. Everything is a spoiler! This is true since only view of the world the audience sees is through (well over the shoulder) the eyes of the emotionally restrained main character, Oliver (Olivier Gourmet — won Best Actor at Cannes for this role) and main narrative threads are only slowly revealed by him. The briefest summary I can give without completely spoiling this wrenching emotional experience is this: Olivier, who works teaching carpentry to male teenagers (many are delinquents seeking a vocation), develops an obsession with one of his charges Francis (Morgan Marinne).
The reason for his behavior is revealed half-way through the film. Le Fils also employs an intense, and occasionally nauseating, cinematography. This might seem surprising and even somewhat distracting in a movie with very little action, however, the Dardenne brothers use this style to adeptly create extreme naturalism. This is further facilitated by the absence of a film score and the presence of Olivier in every frame. All in all, these choices hypnotically draw the reader into Olivier’s world — we see every minute emotion his stoic face betrays, his every inflection speaks volumes, his every action — even the most routine and every deviation from the routine — reflect his emotional state. However, this intense character study is only for the most stalwart of movie goers.
STOP HERE if you haven’t seen the movie!
In a conversation with his ex-wife Magali (Isabella Soupart), the reason for Olivier obsession with his charge Francis is revealed: during a car robbery Francis murdered their son. Magali attempts to convince Olivier to pass Francis — recently out of juvenile prison — to someone else in the center. Inexplicably Olivier refuses. Francis — who appears to desperately want to succeed at something — is unaware that Olivier is the father of the boy he murdered. Slowly Francis, as emotionally restrained as Olivier begins to confide in his new role model. Eventually, he asks Olivier to be his legal guardian. This leads to one of the more tense, emotionally ferocious, and beautifully restrained scenes I’ve ever seen when Olivier takes Francis to a out of the way lumber yard and reveals his secret.
Le Fils is a masterpiece. Although the plot is simplistic, the delivery is impeccable. I intensely emphasized with both characters and suffered with them. A truly disorienting and haunting film which every true cinema lover must experience!