Friday, July 28, 2006


THE SON ("Le Fils", 2002, Belgium, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
The new kid. I can take him.

If you've ever sat through a movie with a child, you'll know the running commentary. "Who's that? What's he doing? Why is he running? Who's that boy? How come he told a lie? Why is he so scared? Is he mad now? Why is he hiding? Is the man going to get him?" And so on.

I happened to go through that stage with my two chatty and perspicacious daughters at exactly the time when I was becoming a playwright, trying to master the tools of the story-teller's trade. And it suddenly dawned on me one day that the out-loud questions of a three-year-old movie-watcher are no different from the unspoken dramaturgical questions that go on unconsciously in every film- or play-goer, whatever their age.

Provided the writer has done his job, that is. Provided a story is being told, a yarn is being spun. The novel has gone other directions in the past century or so, but stage and screen are still essentially narrative art forms, and when you're juggling a dramatic arc or three, you're looking always to keep all the narrative balls in the air – moving, flying, floating, rising and falling and being caught and flipped up against the sky in an apparently effortless dramatic spectacle. Whatever the nuances, complexities and subtleties of your story, if the film breaks at any moment, the whole audience should have the same question in their mind: "What happens next!" Which, being elaborated, may come out as "Will he find out?" or "Will she succeed?" or "How will he manage to..." or any one of a million other questions. But if there's ever a moment in your play (stage- or screen-) when there's nothing like that hanging in the air, you're not quite doing your job. Whether we're watching Shakespeare or Shepard or John Patrick Shanley, an intelligent and engaged watcher should have in mind – conscious or unconscious – a a constant stream of childish questions: "Who's that? What's he doing now? Why is he doing that?" And so on.

Most of the time, that inner interrogatory chatter will be inaudible. At worst, that's because the story's dramatic questions aren't important enough to us, aren't important enough in the grand scheme of things, or we've heard them before in too many other stories and already know the answers, or we feel like nothing's really at stake, nothing hangs on the outcome of the questions. At best, it's because there isn't time or breath to enunciate or notice our questions: they're drown out by the sheer volume of what's coming in, we don't dare raise our voice or listen to the chatter because things are moving too fast, there's so much coming at us we don't have time or inclination to attend to that inner monologue, much less voice it. We don't want to miss anything.

Once as an adult I sat in a theatre and saw a film so unusual, so brilliantly crafted, so dangerous, so perfectly paced – and above all, so quiet – that I could hear that stream of questions in my head so loud I wondered if the people sitting next to me could listen in. There wasn't a scrap of music in the whole film, almost no talking, and almost never a scrap of explanation, justification, exposition. Nothing except people doing things, and me fearing for their lives, their souls.

White titles. Some sort of ambient sound. Something blurred, moving at the bottom of the screen: a thumb in extreme close-up, the top of a head, what? A knocking or rapping: what was that? The camera tracks upward, this is a man's back, the blur was some sort of belt. He's wearing overalls. Back of his head. He's working on something, that's what the tapping is. A woman watches. There's a droning sound, then a cutting sound: a table saw. An urgent voice: "Olivier! Come here! Quick!" He runs to another room, alarmed. Several boys run into the room ahead of him. It's a woodworking shop. He yells over the noise of the saw, "What is this? Go back to work. I told you. Twice at 2 millimeters." Some wood is jammed in a saw. He works the machine, frees the wood, guides it through the saw. What's that in his voice? Fear? Exasperation? Relief? Impatience? He picks up a file folder. Reads something inside that stops him, troubles him, preoccupies him. Begins to walk back to the other room. The woman watches, waiting for his reply. The sound of the buzz saw continues. Hammering. "You'll take him?" He begins to shake his head, then speaks: "No, I can't. The four I got are already too many." She leaves, to see if there's a place in welding. He watches her go, then turns away from us, distracted, aimless. He's doing something we can't see. He's lit a cigarette. Why is he troubled?

A sudden cut, the first so far, we're two minutes fifty into the film. The man runs up some steps, we're close in behind him, he moves slowly around a corner, watches something. What is he looking at? Meticulously, he puts out the cigarette on the sole of his work boot, saves it in the bib pocket of his overalls. Walks slowly down the hall to a corner, approaches slowly, looks around the corner. He doesn't want to be seen.

Cut to his hands, braced against the lower frame of a window. Voices. He's looking into a room. The focus shifts, we see the woman, can't see the person on the other side of the desk. She hands a paper across, a man's hands take it, a boy's hands sign it. He has a light brown jacket. We still cannot see faces in the room. Shift to Olivier, who suddenly runs back down the hall, down the stairs, almost frantic, trying to keep his boots from making noise on the tile floor, hides around a corner, stands staring at a white wall. What is going on? What is he running from? The sound of voices, closer. He looks around the corner, catches a glimpse of the boy in the brown jacket.

Cut to machine noises, we're back in the shop, he looks out an outside window, downs a cup of coffee, resumes teaching. Says almost nothing: he does the action, the student repeats the action, he corrects or not, moves on. And we've got nothing but questions, and an odd sense of dread and foreboding.

For thirty two minutes our questions and dread only grow: nothing is explained, we only observe and try to learn. We see Olivier's belt again: a tool belt? Something to do with the shop, or with lifting? A woman comes to his spartan apartment. His walls are bare, he is living out of cardboard boxes. She is pretty on an ordinary-life, real-human scale. She smiles, she likes him, and we realize this is the first human warmth we've seen. He is awkward, contained. We don't know who she is. Awkward silence, her smile fades. "Back still hurt?" "No." He moves past her through a doorway: they are close, awkward. He moves past her into the other room. Something is wrong. She smiles again, "I'm getting married. I needed to start something again." His reaction is small, contained. "That's good." He washes out his lunch box. Her smile goes again. "And I wanted to tell you that I'm pregnant." This time he says nothing, perhaps blinks a little more rapidly, dries out the lid of his lunch box. Which looks pretty dry already.

Sudden cut to Olivier racing down some stairs. Out into the parking lot, where he stops a car pulling away. "Why did you come today? Why today and not another day?" She drives away. He looks haunted.

His back is bad. Alone in the apartment, he lies on the floor, his feet on a chair. That's what the leather belt is for.

Back at the school, he waits for an opportunity, then scrambles on top of some lockers to look through a high window. Scrambles down so as not to be seen. Eats in a different lunch room, looks about warily. Watching the boys at lunch in the next room. Turns away to clean a knife, we hear a conversation with the new boy. Olivier turns to watch as the boy leaves the room. And the stream of questions continues in our head as the dread grows, and we wait for the gathering storm to break.

Why am I describing the moment-to-moment physical detail of this film so closely? Because that's what this film is: closely observed, moment-to-moment physical detail. But what is it all about? What's going on? I'm not going to say because, most of the time, the film doesn't say. Oh, it all becomes clear eventually: in fact, uncannily, it was at the very moment when I first had the thought, "Okay, I need a little more information right about now" that Olivier walked into the gas station and the circumstances got a lot more clear – even if motivations, and intentions, and what was going to happen next never did. For this utterly engaged viewer, a perfectly timed, perfectly calibrated film.

Important that I went into it knowing absolutely nothing about the story, only that it just might be one of the great films of the new millenium. Important that I wasn't tired or impatient or looking for exploding balls of flame or just a few laughs. Important that you approach the film in just the same way: if the meticulous, bare-bones description I've given catches your attention, don't read another word about it, not even on the DVD case, don't watch it when you're tired or distractable or likely to be interrupted. Don't watch it with somebody if you're going to worry about whether they're bored or not, whether they're getting it. Just take the film on its own terms, believe me and the film-makers that the stakes are as high as they could possibly be, and there's a good chance the film will work for you as it worked for me, in all its deliberateness and commitment to cold, hard, inscrutable reality. Believe Jonathan Rosenbaum when he says "To my knowledge there's no one anywhere making films with such a sharp sense of contemporary working-class life -- but for the Dardennes it's only the starting point of a spiritual and profoundly ethical odyssey."

Luc Dardenne: "Perhaps filming gestures and very specific, material things allows the viewer to sense everything that is spiritual, unseen, and not a part of materiality. We tend to think that the closer one gets to the cup, to the hand, to the mouth whose lips are drinking, the more one will be able to feel something invisible - a dimension we want to follow and which would otherwise be less present in the film. How does one capture what happens when a gesture is taught? How can you capture that on film? Perhaps by filming the gestures as precisely as possible you can render apprehensible that which is not seen."

Perhaps. Certainly, it seems so to me. The world of the film is unarguably physical and uncompromising, and it takes skill and learning (by hard experience) to negotiate one's way through it without damage - to yourself, or to someone else. Something final and inevitable is communicated by the unarguable physics of the carpentry shop: beams have overwhelming size and weight, and once they start to fall they can break a man's back. Mishandle the power saw, you could ruin the wood or (just as suddenly and irrevocably) your own body. The filmmakers present a "man's world," not a boy's world, an environment of uncompromising consequence and mortality: the stakes are as high as life and death, physical to the point of being primal.

The film's deepest truths don't come easily, nor are they easy truths, easily expressed. But when after eighty minutes of unrelieved tension and unknowing the climax comes, it is wrenching and terrible and awkward and cathartic, explaining itself no more than Olivier explains himself to the boys who attend to his gestures to learn the truths of their craft.

This is a world of doing, not explaining, of action rather than talk, where there are no abstractions, only what can be incarnated in wood and earth and physical human bodies. A potent and profound film, stripped to absolute bare essentials.



Available at Videomatica

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