Expressive minimalism: “Le fils” and “L’Enfant” during the Dardenne retrospective at The Film Society
Calling the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne “minimalist” is only the half-truth of their aesthetic sensibility. What gives the appearance of formal disinterestedness and coolness in “Le fils” (2002) and “L’Enfant” (2005), for instance, is really a desire to get close, to visually assimilate a wide range of complex emotions and feelings inside the movie frame. Both films, screened this month as part of the Film Society’s ongoing Dardenne Brothers retrospective, are exemplary in proving that silences still matter in the cinema, for certain, but their achievements are more vibrant and palpable than minimalism alone could potentially offer.
In “Le fils,” Olivier (Olivier Gourmet), a doleful, expressionless middle-aged carpentry instructor living alone in rural Liège, meets the once-incarcerated 16 year-old, Francis (Morgan Marinne). The boy is eager to learn Olivier’s trade, although Olivier is more eager to trace his past, which he soon learns played a significant role in the death of his son. “L’Enfant” is a film similarly concerned about traces – sometimes visible, sometimes hidden or ignored – as the young Sonia (Déborah François) struggles to mother a newborn child while Bruno (Jérémie Renier), the dismissive and reluctant father, pockets money pawning and thieving in the perpetually overcast Belgian town of Seraing.
Sharp and sensuous, both of these films resist cool-headed, altogether pernicious treatments of human situations. The situations, however, are the key; they give the Dardennes an opportunity to explore, to pay attention to foregrounds without neglecting the scales and intensities of more complicated experiences lying below. Hand-held cameras follow the characters of “Le fils” and “L’Enfant” with patience, moving close, wandering between hands and faces, looking for moments that shatter the surface before it freezes over. And yet, patience is often sacrificed for restlessness, for bursts spontaneity and expressiveness (as when Olivier chases the young Francis at the end of “Le fils,” or Bruno and Sonia roughhouse in “L’Enfant”). The surface shatters, to be sure, and from below come those moments of warmth and luminosity that make the Dardenne Brothers masterful observers and that prevent their silences from turning into white noise.
– Ricky D’Ambrose