Oh Dad, Poor Dad

Surrogate fathers in The Good Thief and The Son

* * *

Among the shrinking tribe of filmmakers who still make movies about working people, there is a marked tendency to define their subjects only by the problems that are thought to afflict that class—poverty, gangs, violence, drugs, booze. However well-meaning, this is a form of condescension, one that the Belgian writer/directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes have largely avoided by honoring their characters with inner lives. The brothers' muse is Olivier Gourmet, an owlish, impassive actor who starred in La Promesse and Rosetta and who last year won Best Actor at Cannes for his performance in the Dardennes brothers' remarkable new film, The Son (Le Fils), the story of a Herculean emotional struggle undertaken in near total silence.

Gourmet—an astonishingly physical actor—plays Olivier, a carpentry instructor who works at a vocational-training center for boys. He's a man of few words, and these are almost all concrete and functional, related to the work activity that we sense may be all he has left in life. We meet him as he prowls around, restless and agitated, spying on a new arrival at the center, a pinched, expressionless lad of 16 named Francis (Morgan Marinne), who in turn becomes obsessed with his instructor. Though at first it seems the boy might be a son long-ago abandoned by Olivier, when the older man's ex-wife, Magali (Isabella Soupart), shows up to let him know she's pregnant and about to marry the father ("I want to start something new," she says), we later learn that Francis, who has just been released from juvenile hall, is the killer of their only son. On hearing Olivier has chosen to take a particular interest in the boy, Magali is horrified.

The Son makes no attempt to entertain us. Much of this extraordinarily tactful movie, like Rosetta, is shot in close-up, focusing on the back of Olivier's neck, as if inviting us to see the world as he does or to enter his head and try to understand the emotions of a man who doesn't understand them himself. Olivier and the boy circle each other, draw together, move apart. One waits for closure, and instead, there is the slowly unfolding revelation of a man torn between rage at the loss of his son and the unspoken desire, welling up like a long-suppressed groan, to become a father again.

The Good Thief was written and directed by Neil Jordan (based on the movie Bob le Flambeur by Jean-Pierre Melville); produced by Stephen Woolley, John Wells and Seaton Mclean; and stars Nick Nolte, Nutsa Kukhianidze and Tchťky Karyo. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana; The Son was written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes; produced by the Dardenneses and Denis Freyd; and stars Olivier Gourmet, Morgan Marinne and Isabella Soupart. Now playing at Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hills.

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