By Daniel Barnes
In my festival intro, I mentioned that actor Jérémie Renier served as the Dardenne brothers’ “on-again, off-again muse,” a blonde-mopped personification of moral turpitude and financial desperation in modern-day Belgium. That argument still holds water, especially since the characters that Renier played in La Promesse, The Child, and The Kid with a Bike (and presumably Lorna’s Silence, I still haven’t seen it) seem like they could be different versions of the same person. But for the purposes of this festival, I should have been talking about the importance of actor Olivier Gourmet.
The 51 year-old Gourmet, who figured prominently in all three films in this festival, has 99 TV and film credits listed on IMDB, but he became an in-demand actor largely due to his work with the Dardenne brothers, starting in 1996 with La Promesse. Since then, Gourmet has appeared in every single feature made by the Dardenne brothers – most recently, he played the foreman who tries to get Marion Cotillard fired in Two Days, One Night, and he was the heartless waffle stand owner in Rosetta. Mike Dub singled Gourmet out for praise in his review of La Promesse, calling his portrayal of a schluby single father/sleazy slum lord “the epitome of quotidian self-preservation.” Gourmet plays another sad-sack schlub with questionable motives in The Son, but it’s a rare starring role for the career character actor, and a rare chance to display a sliver of human decency and tenderness.
While working at a center for troubled boys, the typically taciturn but short-fused carpentry teacher Olivier takes an unusually patient and obsessive interest in one of his new pupils, a stone-faced minor recently let out on parole. We soon learn that the boy was involved in the death of the teacher’s son, a connection that Olivier keeps secret from the boy. As the two of them grow closer, though, Olivier prods the boy with questions in order to gauge his remorse levels…is Olivier out for rehabilitation, or revenge? Only the constantly eavesdropping camera has any clue (watch how often the camera follows a character’s eye line). It all leads to a finale that should feel familiar to anyone who has followed along with the festival.
Even minor Dardenne is major cinema, but The Son is their least substantial work, and I placed it last in my updated Dardenne Brothers Power Rankings. It has all of their usual intellectual rigor and stylistic and thematic hallmarks, but little of the narrative momentum of their best films. Once the story elements fall into place at the end of the first act, there’s not much left to do but wait for the inevitable final confrontation between Olivier and the boy. While the film is beautifully constructed and achingly raw, like an unfinished, handmade wooden box, the visual austerity felt a little more punishing and a little less electric this time.
But none of that diminishes a magnificent lead performance from Gourmet, who keeps finding new layers of mystery and confusion in this broken shell of a man. Gourmet possesses a curious mixture of intensity, weakness, gravitas, and invisibility, operating sort of like a less bombastic Paul Giamatti or Philip Seymour Hoffman. If the Gourmet of La Promesse was the banality of evil, and the Gourmet of Rosetta was the banality of power, then the Gourmet character of The Son is the banality of grief, a teetering man for whom salvation and self-destruction may be the exact same thing.