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Le fils

With La Promesse and Rosetta (winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1999), the brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne composed thought-provoking studies of conscience and betrayal, and the moral issues surrounding both. The directors’ new film Le fils is an equally serious examination of the conflicting emotions of revenge and forgiveness as experienced by a troubled man who is haunted by a past tragedy in his life. Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) is a solitary, anguished individual who teaches carpentry at a youth rehabilitation centre. He seems troubled when he glimpses a new boy, Francis (Morgan Marinne), and at first refuses to take the youngster as his charge. Having relented, Olivier’s furtive glances and awkward manner with Francis suggest an erotic fixation. However, it is eventually disclosed that Francis had been incarcerated five years previously for the murder of Olivier’s son, an event which also led to the break-up of the parents’ marriage.
Although the Dardennes typically refrain from straightforward narrative exposition, we can deduce that the death of his son has led to Olivier shutting himself off from human contact. Lost in his personal pain but presenting an impassive face to the world, he’s unable to move on whereas his ex-wife is pregnant and about to remarry. Olivier remains detached from Francis, behaving with great formality and occasional displays of petty malice. Francis, however, comes to trust and respect the older man, even asking him to be his legal guardian.
The essential element of the film is Gourmet’s remarkable performance. A deserving winner of the Best Actor award at Cannes last year, Gourmet somehow manages to convey a profound understanding of Olivier’s inner turmoil as he oscillates between a desire for revenge and a need to understand and forgive. Few actors have been so successful at articulating not only a deep sense of pain and loss but also the coping mechanisms necessary to survive such a devastating human tragedy.
(Belgium-France, 2002. English subtitles. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 103 mins.)

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