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Olivier - meticulous, careful, even-handed - teaches carpentry at a vocational school in Liège. He's asked to take on Francis, 16, a new student. He declines the request then begins to watch, even spy on, the new lad. Olivier knows something. Later that day, he's visited by Magali, his ex-wife, who tells him that she's remarrying and is pregnant. Olivier seems to follow instinctive responses: "why today?" he demands of Magali; he continues to follow Francis; he changes his mind about enrolling the youth. What's the history between the two? After that becomes clear, what is it Olivier will do? Is this precise and measured carpenter in control of himself? Written by
The rapt watchfulness of this film is almost intolerable.
The minutiae of the woodwork instructor protagonist's drab and solitary daily existence merely repel us at first: his opaque, inexpressive, sulky-looking face (on the rare occasions that we see it, as opposed to the back of his neck) seems to confirm that there is nothing here for us, nothing but the muffled dullness of a dead-end existence, nothing but the droning of power tools in the sullen workshop and the heating-up of tinned soup in the bare little apartment.
Then the film's remorseless attention to the mundane starts to hint at some turmoil of this man's inner life, which is being kept rigorously in check by everyday rituals: the conscientious painful sit-ups, the critical measurement of the trainees' clumsy work. Something unbearable is being borne. Some terrible price is being paid. Olivier is like some powerful caged mammal, ever darting just ahead the camera's reach. We fear for the boys in his domininion -- especially for the new trainee, whom he stalks with a feral intensity.
And now we learn the awful sadness of what ails Olivier, and what has brought everything to a head. Now the camera watches his every move with mixed dread and wonder. Now every little thing he does matters, as we struggle to gauge what he will do next. Now the details of just what nail to use, of the trick to carrying a heavy wooden lintel (so like a cross), become utterly compelling -- not as displacement activities, but as things that can be relied upon, as tangible truths.
And finally, on long drive to a timber yard one late-autumn weekend, we watch a miracle unfold: halting, clumsy, almost wordless, although there is a sort of confession, and a sort of catechism. Wet leaves still stick to the boy's back from a momentary struggle in a wood as the newly-cut planks are stacked, silently, in the trailer. Master and apprentice are joined by the mystery of their craft. A father without a son has found a son without a father.
And now, at last, we understand that the film's watchfulness has been Olivier's own: his need to observe, to assess, to measure up (something for which he has a peculiar knack), in order to decide how the right thing is to be done. For only then is it done decisively, deftly and truly.
That a film of such simplicity, unflinching honesty and moral intensity can be made today is itself little short of miraculous. In both its symbolic language and its belief in the possibility of grace, it is firmly rooted in a particular north-European pietistic (and specifically Catholic) tradition. But never mind about that. This is a genuine and beautifully modest masterpiece of humane realism.
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