All hail the single-minded artist in the grip of a rigorous idea—a method that carries the promise of self-abnegation and the threat of self-parody. The Son, the latest exercise in spiritually infused social realism by the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, borders such extreme filmmaking. Absorbed with the nuts and bolts of the task at hand, The Son is a masterfully rough-hewn piece of work—it has the unmediated feel of a single, sustained scene.
The Son is about education, but it’s not at all didactic. (It’s an object lesson, with the emphasis on “object.”) The story of a carpenter named Olivier (Dardenne axiom Olivier Gourmet) who finds himself teaching his trade to the teenage boy responsible for his own son’s death, the movie manages to be both conceptual and visceral. Life’s a soccer match in the world of the Dardennes. The smallest event can set off a brain-jarring tumult. Their trademark cut is a jump from one close-up to another, typically of the lead character rushing off with Alain Marcoen’s handheld camera in hot pursuit. The Son opens mid-emergency, introducing the back of Olivier’s neck as he bustles around his carpentry shop, barking directions and dealing with a malfunctioning power saw.
Such hectic activity scarcely abates when Olivier’s ex-wife appears to inform him of her new pregnancy and impending remarriage. Their oblique, awkward conversation provides a sudden jolt of melodramatic back-story. Metaphors proliferate. The carpenter is dismayed by the synchronicity of her visit, which occurs the same morning that their son’s killer, Francis (Morgan Marinne), who has been released after five years in juvenile prison, lands in his workshop.
The Dardennes made documentaries for 20 years before breaking into fiction with La Promesse and Rosetta. Devoid of mood music and tricky lighting, their rough-and-ready method has affinities to Dogme and is, at times, even more confrontational. Establishing shots are infrequent. Compositions verge on the Brakhagian—Olivier’s blocky form framed to fill two-thirds of the foreground, with a sliver of street glimpsed beyond, sometimes refracted through the prism of his thick glasses. The Dardennes are never less than fascinated by the minutiae of physical labor, including the weight of simply being in the world. Olivier’s bad back appears more of an issue than his broken heart.
The carpenter is shown to warily circle sullen Francis, who’s unaware of their shared history, but the logic of this approach-avoidance is only gradually deduced. When I first saw The Son last spring at Cannes (where Gourmet won the prize for best actor), it seemed inferior to the estimable Rosetta in that the brothers’ stampeding style offered little insight into their stolid protagonist’s nature. I was wrong. On second viewing, it’s apparent that the tumult mirrors Olivier’s agitation. Because this brusque, unsmiling carpenter always seems to be thinking, the audience spends much of the movie wondering what’s on his mind—at one point, Olivier glimpses his murderous reflection in a rest room mirror and the realization dawns that he may be wondering too. (One of the movie’s ongoing questions is the quality of a measured response.)
Like the Dardennes’ camera, their story sneaks up on you. Honest craftsmen, the filmmakers construct their setup for sustained suspense. (Indeed, the visuals calm down once the essential conflict is solidly established.) Francis is unaware and ubiquitous—just as one would expect, given his role in the course of Olivier’s life. Moreover, this diffident, yet eager, kid exists as something beyond the embodiment of Olivier’s personal misery. As unsmiling and dogged as his reluctant mentor, Francis is a distinct, not particularly likable, but undeniably human, being. And, of course, in his stray-cat “innocence,” Francis also presents Olivier with an opportunity to achieve grace.
Primal as its conflict is, some have found The Son a perversely withholding version of In the Bedroom. There’s no gross catharsis, perhaps not even a law of the father. Abrupt enough to end their movie mid-gesture, the Dardennes are after a more profound revelation. For all its quasi-documentary materialism, The Son is ultimately a Christian allegory of one man’s inchoate desire to return good for evil. The movie requires a measure of faith, and like a job well done, it repays that trust.
High priest of tough-guy mysticism, inventor of the attitudinous thriller associated with Godard, Tarantino, and Wong Kar-wai, the late Jean-Pierre Melville returns to us this week with the local premiere of the complete 140-minute version of his 1970 buddy-manhunt-caper cum crypto-western Le Cercle Rouge, presented—in a restored color print—by his acolyte John Woo.
Prefaced by one of Melville’s patented fake Buddhist quotes, Le Cercle Rouge is a work of leisurely development and tragic inevitability—so formalized it seems natural for the criminals to wear jacket and tie as they waft through a posh, nocturnal Paris. (They actually seem less anachronistic now than two years after the barricades of ’68.) The principal ballerinas in this dance of the professionals are the ex-con Corey (Alain Delon), the alcoholic ex-cop Jansen (Yves Montand), and the escaped prisoner Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté), loners all. The heist at the movie’s center is choreographed like a commando raid or a bullfight, with the dapper, self-possessed Delon a grim matador in white gloves and a full face mask. Afterward, Jansen is willing to forgo his share of the loot; to participate in taking the Place Vendôme jewelry store is reward enough.
Jansen is pursued by his demons; Vogel by an Interpol cop; Corey by the mob. The existential doom is so thick you could spread it on a baguette. As deliberate as it is, Le Cercle Rouge does not lack for suspense. The elegantly functional script pivots on a neat series of reversals and chance intersections. Despite the presence of Euro stars Delon and Montand, the tone is less preening than businesslike—stately rituals performed by a cast of solitary men in trench coats. (Melville’s notion of a gallant woman is the nightclub cigarette girl who silently presents Corey with a single rose, as the noose that is Le Cercle Rouge begins to tighten.)
The Melville world is so specific to the movies that it verges on abstraction, although his streamlined fatalism is enlivened by odd bits of business. The bloodhounds pursuing Vogel through the woods pass a sign reading, “Niepce invented photography in this village, 1822.” Jansen suffers excruciatingly literal DTs in a hovel with striped wallpaper too hideous to hallucinate. The underworld dive run by dour, spaniel-eyed Santi (Paul Crauchet) features a floor show that might be the prototype for a Robert Palmer video—12 chorines in matching hooker wigs impassively maneuvering around a tiny stage.
No less than the Dardennes, albeit to different effect, Melville is attuned to the perfectly studied gesture. Early in the movie—and very early in the morning—taciturn Corey comes calling on the former associate for whom he took the rap. Ignoring the crime boss’s fawning promises of assistance, the implacable ex-con has him open up the wall safe, helping himself to money and a gun, then leaving as his marker a worn photograph of the very woman we’ve just seen naked in the boss’s bed. Without a backward glance, this epitome of cool leaves to play a solitary game of pool in an empty billiard parlor and await the inevitable appearance of the boss’s minions.
Elsewhere in Europe: The long, devotedly miserablist movies of Fred Kelemen are as steeped in dreariness as those of Bela Tarr, only without the voluptuous beauty of Tarr’s mise-en-scène. Such sensuality is a bourgeois distraction. Kelemen’s most recent feature, Nightfall, showing as part of his Anthology retro (January 9 through 12), programmatically disrupts its own bleakly underlit look with the insertion of raw video close-ups.
A largely plotless, fado-scored journey through the gloomy cobblestone streets, zombie bars, and fetid basements of a sordid harbor town populated by German-speaking sots and Portuguese guest workers, Nightfall is Kelemen’s most polished despair-fest. An unhappy young couple, Leni and Anton, quarrel and split separately into the rat’s ass of the evening. Everyone is looking for love, but no one finds any—although Leni does pick up a trick. With perfect bad timing, Anton wanders by the parked car where she is engaged, and in a frenzy of depression, carves her name on his knuckles. A sympathetic hooker bandages his hand and even gets him to dance before she lets her wig slip and passes out on the bar. Then it’s on through an after-hours club of sodden depravity to the bleary dawn.
Kelemen’s mode is abject minimalism. There’s little dialogue, though ample background clamor. Grimly clutching the screen, his long takes give events the sense of real time. Even when verging on self-parody, Nightfall is rigorously committed to its particular vision. Kelemen is surely the least compromising German director of his generation.