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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 Son, the latest film from Jean and Luc Dardenne (La Promesse, Rosetta) challenges us to look at our capacity for forgiveness and, in the process, articulates what it means to be human. According to the directors, the film is about "The moral imagination or the capacity to put oneself in the place of another". Olivier (Olivier Gourmet), a lonely carpentry teacher at a vocational rehabilitation school in Belgium, is a stolid, ordinary looking, and inexpressive man. His eyes are hidden behind thick glasses and his back is protected by a support brace. His entire being seems to be "in permanent disequilibrium" but conveys a pent-up energy that seems ready to explode. Olivier has been separated from his wife Magali (Isabella Soupart) since their young son was murdered during a bungled robbery and the half-hearted way they interact indicate the mourning has not been completed. When Francis (Morgan Marinne), a 16-year old boy just released from reform school, appears at the workshop, Olivier, seems strangely obsessed with the youngster, at first rejecting then taking him on at the school.
Not much happens during the first half-hour. The focus is on the minutiae of the workplace, the techniques of woodworking, the source of lumber, precise measurements, how to hold and carry wood and so forth. The claustrophobic camera follows Olivier around the workshop, breathing down his neck, back, and ears, creating a disorienting rhythm of almost unbearable intensity. There is no soundtrack other than the hammers and electric saws. Olivier follows Francis around with his eyes and we suspect there may be something unusual going on. This is confirmed when Olivier secretly steals the keys to Francis' apartment and lies on his bed. Later he meets the boy at a fast food place and impresses him with his ability to gauge distances with his eye. He then invites Francis to join him on the weekend to pick up some wood at a mill about 40km away. There is little dialogue on the trip and the tension is palpable. When the boy asks Olivier to become his guardian, the teacher demands to know the reason why he was locked up for five years. Their arrival at the mill leads to an inevitable confrontation and a startling conclusion of profound beauty.
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