After an Enigmatic Beginning, Visual Concentration Pays Off

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Son , from their own screenplay, takes narrative subjectivity almost as far as it can go, with an obsessive camera that never leaves the protagonist and the narrow spaces around him. As the Dardenne brothers describe their method in their production notes: “The storyline is the character, opaque, enigmatic. Maybe not the character, but the actor himself: Olivier Gourmet. His body, the nape of his neck, his face, his eyes lost behind his glasses. We could not imagine the film based on another actor.”

All well and good, but a viewer who has not read anything about the film before seeing it will be mystified by the visual concentration on a middle-aged, very ordinary-looking man with glasses and a back brace, working in some kind of carpentry shop. In the beginning and for a long time thereafter, the man has no name inasmuch as there is no narration, no expository dialogue and no captions to tell us where and when the film is supposed to be taking place. The man seems to be nervously, almost guiltily snooping around his young workers, spying on their activities. Is he some sort of pervert? In these depraved times, one can never be sure. Gradually, we realize that he is their instructor in what reveals itself to be a vocational institution for young delinquents released from a reformatory.

The man’s name is called out by a secretary: “Olivier” -the same first name as the actor, though his last name, Gourmet, is never linked to the character. It should be noted that Mr. Gourmet was chosen Best Actor at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. Certainly, no actor I can think of has ever been so central, so much the raison d’être of the film in which he appears. There have been films, like Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1947), told entirely from the point of view of the main character, with the actor (Montgomery himself) heard throughout, but seen only as a reflection in the occasional mirror. But in The Son , we don’t see everything the character sees as he sees it, and there are no quick cuts to the objects seen after the shot of a character in the act of seeing these objects, as in the precisely metaphorical world of Alfred Hitchcock. All we see in The Son is a series of frames-some fluidly moving and being reframed with a mobile camera, and always the obtrusive presence of Olivier.

If you come to the film cold, you have to wait for the action to unfold for a considerable length of time before you have any idea of what’s going on. In the meantime, you may feel as if you’ve wandered into a meticulously detailed instructional film on carpentry, its tools and the various trees from which planks are derived. Indeed, if the films of the Dardenne brothers are about anything at all, they’re about the daily grind of manual labor in the working life of their characters. There is a subtext involved, but it tends to be more sociological than psychological.

In any event, when the “plot” is finally clarified, it casts a powerful spell, mingling surprise, suspense and, ultimately, moral and emotional exhilaration. The question remains whether such a long period of frustrating mystification in the course of the film makes the whole enterprise seem snobbish and elitist. Nowadays, of course, with all the infomercials and online espionage, there’s very little chance of not knowing pretty much how every movie comes out before the opening credits, if any, unroll.

I happened to see The Son without reading the advance reviews and program notes, and I felt a bit like Mr. and Mrs. Joe Popcorn wondering what the hell was going on, and whether or not I would ever be adequately enlightened. Foreign art-festival fodder seems to have a special dispensation to be as obnoxiously obscure as the director desires, but I found myself wondering if the Dardenne brothers hadn’t overstepped the prerogative.

Interestingly enough, La Promesse (1996), their first film to receive international acclaim, was comparatively conventional in its narrative structure and visual style. The moral motivation for the main character’s noble behavior packed an edifyingly progressive wallop and made the film an art-house hit. It’s still fondly remembered.

With Rosetta (1999) and now The Son , the Dardennes have become increasingly esoteric, if not pretentious, in the way they tell their stories. The populist sensibility is consistent enough in all three works, but the brothers seem to be veering toward a more abnormal mind-set for their working-class characters.

Nonetheless, I can’t deny being stirred by the wildly melodramatic climax of The Son , with its thunderously quiescent Zen Buddhist conclusion. Since I am relatively late with this review for my readers, I feel no compunction in revealing the narrative thunderbolt that propels the action to its quietly bizarre resolution.

Piecing together fragments of exposition over the running time of the film, we’re able to ascertain that Olivier and his wife, Magali (Isabella Soupart), have been divorced ever since their little boy was killed by another little boy in the botched robbery of a car radio. The killer, Francis (Morgan Marinne), now 16, has just been released from reform school after serving five years, and comes to learn a trade at the center, not knowing that his instructor is the father of the boy he killed. But Olivier knows the boy’s identity, and he tells his ex-wife, who is now pregnant with her new husband’s child. She pleads with Olivier to send the boy away, but for no reason Olivier can explain (even to himself), he keeps the boy under his wing, as it were, though he seems perpetually troubled by his conflicted feelings. When Olivier finally tells Francis who he is, the situation explodes and then simmers down without ever being “talked out.” It’s the way, ultimately, of people who express themselves more through their work than through their constricted speech. Though I remain suspicious of anything that smacks of affectation, I still give The Son a reluctant plus rather than a popcorn-chewing minus. Not since the Golden Age of Robert Bresson (1907-1999) has acting been so indistinguishable from being.

Spike’s Sheer Muchness

Spike Lee’s 25th Hour , from a screenplay by David Benioff adapted from his novel, breaks down finally into a lyrical lamentation over the plight of its dope-dealing protagonist, Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), on his last day of freedom before doing a seven-year stretch at the Big House. In the pre-credit sequence, Monty demonstrates that he is an A-O.K. guy by rescuing and adopting an aging and dying mongrel despite the warnings of his obese, drug-dealing Russian mobster buddy Kostya Novotny (Tony Siragusa). This touch of tough-guy sentimentality is somewhat at odds with subsequent rants about all the trials and traumas attendant on life and death in New York City post–9/11. Mr. Lee and Mr. Benioff have chosen to be brutally frank about the ugly realities of the Rockefeller drug laws that have filled our prisons, the permissive attitude of the authorities to fearsome prison rapes, and the rampant amorality of rap and youth culture. In fact, Mr. Lee -as always-piles so many problems on his plate that there is an inevitable spillover into a cosmic sludge of multicultural malaise.

In 20 years of agitated filmmaking, the 45-year-old Mr. Lee (born Shelton Jackson Lee in Atlanta, Ga., in 1957) has managed to direct 14 theatrical features, two early shorts, three TV movies and two nonfiction films, in addition to the five movies he produced for other directors. He has become a familiar ringside celebrity at New York Knicks games at Madison Square Garden, and has managed in recent years to engage in a taunting love-hate relationship with Indiana Pacer long-range sharpshooter Reggie Miller. His basketball street smarts are in evidence in Monty’s neo-expressionistic rant about, among many other things, black schoolyard-basketball hotshots who never pass to their teammates if they can drive for a dunk instead, which is always. This knowing critique of black behavior by a hip white onlooker is the latest indication of Mr. Lee’s broadening outlook on race relations.

As always, however, there are what the French used to call “privileged moments” that interrupt the flow of the narrative. Mr. Lee is nothing if not stylistically ambitious in magnifying and even distending his material and his characters to accommodate his perception of life’s sheer muchness. There’s a tendency for Mr. Norton’s small-time drug dealer to grow into a veritable truth-telling dispeller of other people’s illusions right out of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh . I don’t how much of the fantasy apparatus of the film comes out of Mr. Benioff’s novel and how much has been devised especially for the film-but whatever the source and the inspiration, the film succeeds more often than not in getting away with its digressions.

This is just as well, since there’s little suspense and uncertainty in the few dramatic issues involved: the actual identity of the person who betrayed Monty; the decision he has to make between going to prison and running away, as he is urged to do by this father, upright Irish bartender James Brogan (Brian Cox); the willingness of Monty’s two best friends to perform two needed pre-prison favors; and the reluctant belief of the Russian mob boss, Nicolai, that Monty will not betray him in a plea bargain.

Even Monty’s two best friends-Irish currency trader Francis Xavier Slaughtery (Barry Pepper) and Jewish trust-fund English teacher Jakob Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman)-are diverted into side plots that make them seem more like sociologically symbolic constructs than plausible onetime high-school classmates from the ‘hood. The favor Monty asks of Slaughtery is that he beat his old best friend to a pulp so that he won’t be good-looking enough on his first day and night in prison to get all the assorted Bubbas on his case and his posterior. Slaughtery is understandably reluctant, but Monty provokes him into a violently self-hating rage and gets the job done. I have no way of evaluating how close this undeniably original (if unpleasant) plot twist is to any semblance of plausible reality, but it makes for male weepiness of operatic dimensions.

Elinsky is asked merely to take care of Monty’s dog while he’s in the stir-which, in this mangy dog’s life, is forever. Elinsky agrees in between trying to manage a provocative underage student, Mary D’Annunzio (Anna Paquin), who wants a better grade from Elinsky for whatever it takes in extracurricular activity. At times, Monty is very much the forgotten man as his two friends wrestle with their own problems and emotions.

Almost in the background is Naturelle Rivera (Rosario Dawson), Monty’s main squeeze. Did she betray him? Monty doesn’t think so, and he’s proven right, of course, when the seemingly omnipotent Nicolai tells Monty that the treacherous Kostya Novotny did the deed. It may all be too pat, but I still think that Mr. Lee has come closer than he ever has before to making the great film about New York City that David Thomson hoped from him in a favorable mini-bio in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film .