Olivier Gourmet: Suffer the children

The murder of James Bulger had a profound effect on 'The Son'. The film's Belgian star tells Fiona Morrow why
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The Independent Culture

Olivier Gourmet is a substantial guy. He's no taller than average, but his broad shoulders and paunch give him a weighty presence. With a nose prominent for its bluntness, his face is a serious affair; it's not a look that would go down big in LA.

Olivier Gourmet is a substantial guy. He's no taller than average, but his broad shoulders and paunch give him a weighty presence. With a nose prominent for its bluntness, his face is a serious affair; it's not a look that would go down big in LA.

But Gourmet is Belgian and part of a loose repertory company that has formed around that country's fraternal film-makers, the Dardennes. In La Promesse, the brothers' first foray into fiction (they were originally documentarists), Gourmet played a trafficker in illegal immigrants who put family loyalty before personal morality, and wound up alienating the son he loved most. He also had a small role in the Dardennes' follow-up, the highly-acclaimed Rosetta.

In The Son, he's back in the lead, playing a man grieving for his child, murdered when left briefly alone in a car. It's a subtle, emotionally affecting performance, and it garnered him the coveted Best Actor Palme at last year's Cannes Festival. As for the film itself, it will undoubtedly provide an uneasy reminder of a killing that still haunts this country – the murder of James Bulger.

I meet Gourmet in Paris, in a tiny hotel room which, by 11am, is already thick with the smoke from his evenly-paced habit. He says that originally the Dardenne brothers wanted their movie to be about a man who saves a woman. "A man whose wife loses her job and thus, eventually, her dignity. Her husband would help her to restore that dignity." Then, thanks to events this side of the Channel, the brothers changed their minds. "They had decided to make it a story about a father who loses a child, but once the details of the James Bulger case were known, they chose to make it about a man whose child was murdered by another child."

Gourmet is happy to point out that he preferred the final scenario. "I felt that I could give more to this story, that there was so much more to explore in the loss of a child than the loss of a job."

It made sense to him, too, that his character was a carpenter. "It wouldn't have been so powerful if he'd been an office worker," he says with a shrug. "He was always going to be a manual labourer, but to begin with they couldn't decide between a carpenter and a cook. But a cook has access to knives," he laughs. "The Dardennes thought that the possibility of violence would be overplayed."

I suggest that, although formally the film is startlingly fresh, thematically it raises eternal questions: whether perpetrating an evil act means the perpetrator is evil; and, when faced with such a heinous crime, whether forgiveness is the only positive answer. Gourmet smiles. "I've had other people tell me that this is not at all about forgiveness, that there is no forgiveness in the film. Others have suggested that it's a film of tolerance..." He pauses. "In the aftermath of the Bulger case, vengeance and hatred were being expressed very volubly. The Dardennes like to focus both on human sincerity and frailty, but they don't necessarily want to make it all black and white."

To prepare for the role, Gourmet talked to Belgian parents of murdered children. "Just like a journalist," he says, the flicker of a smile on his lips, "I as an actor have to inform myself, to be aware of reality. The idea is to create bridges between what is going on in my life and the roles I play."

Having two children himself added its own poignancy. "Just meeting the parents of these murdered children wasn't enough," he says. "I had to then transpose that to within myself and see how I would react if I were to suffer such a loss. Even if this sounds cruel, I had to imagine what it would be like to to lose my own children."

Saying the words out loud causes him to wince visibly, and he adds quickly: "But of course there is always some distance in this process – the possibility of such a thing being thankfully remote."

"Still," he sighs, "I will never again, even for a minute, leave my kids in the car alone."

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