Belief in this World: The Dardenne brothers’ The Son and Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling
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Belief in this World:
The Dardenne brothers’ The Son and Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling

Introduction

This paper takes Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s film Le Fils (The Son) and its critical reception as an occasion to explore Gilles Deleuze’s proposition that cinema’s capacity to show belief in this world—as a secular corollary to Søren Kierkegaard’s religious belief as a leap of faith—is one avenue by which the medium might rediscover its pertinence after the demise of the movement-image. Previous interpretations of The Son have taken up the film’s connection with the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac (the problemata under contemplation in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling) to argue that the film’s ethical stance rests in its allusion to and rejection of the conception of faith demonstrated in the Hebrew Bible myth. These interpretations claim that where Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac to God represents a “teleological suspension of the ethical” (Kierkegaard 83), the central character of this film is ethical precisely because he overcomes his passion for vengeance. They rest on the conviction that Olivier looks to all intents and purposes as if he is luring the boy Francis out to the sawmill (the trip being compared to Abraham and Isaac’s journey to Moriah) in order to seek personal retribution for the murder of his son.

The treatment of the film that follows takes issue with this interpretation on two levels. It questions the construction of this look by indicating a dissonance between how the character acts and how he is seen by the camera-consciousness that conveys his story. And it finds the comparisons made between Kierkegaard’s interpretation of the Abrahamic myth and the film wanting, both in being too quick to side with Kierkegaard’s unreliable narrator Johannes de Silentio, who denounces Abraham’s actions as ethically unjustifiable, and in their failure to heed Kierkegaard’s understanding of religious passion as affording a higher plane of existence than the merely ethical. To provide a fuller treatment of the film’s development of ideas about ethics and passion, I reach toward the privileged place in his cinema books that Deleuze gives to Kierkegaard’s idea of ‘belief in the absurd.’ In so doing, I endeavor to show that far from offering the West the simple parable of ethical behavior it needed to sustain itself in the wake [End Page 98] of the events of September 11, the significance of the Dardennes’ film lies in its means of complicating perspectives to the extent that it completely eludes the clichés of the action-image and its easy solutions to dilemmas which ravage cinema’s viability as a medium of serious thinking.

In constructing this argument about the film, I clarify aspects of some of Deleuze’s theses in his Cinema books. In particular, I reconnect his three separate contemplations of choice: the first, a discussion of Kierkegaard in the elaboration of the affection-image in Cinema 1; the second, the study of the great men of evil in the chapter “The Powers of the False” in Cinema 2; and the third, the return to Kierkegaard in the chapter “Thought and Cinema,” also in Cinema 2. I also show that the importance Deleuze places on the question of choice plays a part in his distinction between theorematic and problematic stories inasmuch as the first of these two categories applies to tales of closed worlds of pure immanence while the second heeds a world that is open to the outside. Indeed, it is because the Dardennes’ film operates in the order of the problematic, and is thus open to the outside, that the myth of Abraham is not just some allusion to a dilemma that can be rectified but stands as a compelling force that impacts our perception of the characters and their relations.

By taking up what Deleuze conceives as the cinema’s saving power—belief in this world—I argue for a reading of the film that sees Olivier not on the brink of filicide but as representing belief in this world as belief in the absurd. I show...


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