If you backed me into a corner and forced me to name my favorite contemporary filmmaker, I might blurt out the Dardenne brothers, and not just because I was lucky enough to interview them a couple years ago. Dans l’Obscurité, their new, three-minute short above (for the Chacun son cinéma omnibus film celebrating Cannes’ 60th anniversary) reinforces many reasons why, but as with all art–particularly minimalist or essentialist works–identifying style too often sounds like recipe rather than revelation; and this isn’t about a formula. Their assignment was to express their current state of mind in regards to the motion picture theater.
So what do we have? What looks like a single, handheld tracking shot that begins and ends with an emphasis on hands (“We like filming actors bodies,” the Dardennes say), a trademark of Robert Bresson, whose film Au hasard Balthazar (1966) is heard playing in the background of the film. Bresson is a filmmaker often cited when speaking of the Dardennes and this film is clearly a tribute; both their cinemas emphasize bodies, physicalities, and ellipses with a stringent naturalism that paradoxically suggests the inner workings of their characters’ souls. (Though it has often been said that Bresson emphasizes essence over elaboration; Raymond Durgnat once cited this critical exchange: “There aren’t any sympathetic female characters in Bresson.” . . . “There aren’t any sympathetic characters in Bresson!” . . . “Are there any characters in Bresson?”)
The Dardennes’ not only like to film bodies, they like to pose questions as to what the bodies are actually doing. For a long stretch of time in the beginning of their film The Son, little is known about the agitated man who stalks a teenager until his purpose gradually becomes clear, and the active viewer watches, waits, assembles clues, and makes speculations. This film is no different. Whose hands are featured? What are they doing? Where are they going? For those familiar with Balthazar, the crawling figure certainly resembles the film’s four-legged icon.
Shifting its emphasis from hands to face, the camera offers more information: it’s a male teenager crawling through a movie theater, yet his face is impassive and ambiguous, inviting further study. Is he escaping? Sneaking in without a ticket? Stalking someone? The fact that the lateral tracking shot catches regular glimpses of his face is perhaps the third self-reference to cinema in this film; like a live action zoetrope, the face appears and disappears behind the blackness of chairs with tantalizing rhythm.
Then the hand again, as the boy slowly peels back the cloak and begins pickpocketing the woman seated next to him. We know it’s a woman because the Dardennes allow us to see her bare arm, suggesting (or in the case of those familiar with Bresson, reminding us of) the sexual tension imbedded in the act of thievery. The hand sensuously undulates like a spider, rifling through the material in search of valuables.
The scene is also a microcosm of Dardenne dramaturgy: two individuals meet in ethical tension. The darkness of the title could refer to the theater as well as the lack of awareness between characters; the boy sees the other as an object, the other doesn’t see him at all. (Or so we think.) And in the filmmakers’ Levinasian perspective, all thinking stems from encounters with the Other, with ethics serving as first and necessary prelude to all subsequent thought and interaction.
The boy jerks back his hand, breaking–for the first time–the camera’s magnetic attraction. Perhaps he has been caught? But as Schubert’s sonata begins and Balthazar‘s famous last scene transpires, the woman is crying. She is not the first nor will she be the last spectator to find herself in tears at the end of Bresson’s film, but perhaps she’s also mourning the boy crawling on the floor for a bit of money, a confused and literally fallen person precisely for whom Bresson’s film is a requiem? Does she know what he is doing when she snatches his hand for comfort? Does it matter? Eternal yet highly tentative optimists, the Dardennes suggest that human connection and renewal can transpire even in movie theaters, places otherwise immersed in darkness and vulnerability.