2006Director: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Cast: Jérémie Renier, Déborah François, Jérémie Segard
he problem with L’Enfant is that there is not much wrong with it. Not that such a remark should ever be a problem—try as you might, there is little higher praise you could find to heap on a movie—but for the Dardenne brothers, critical acclaim is part of the game. Two-time Palme d’Or winners (with Rosetta in 1999 and L’Enfant in 2005), brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are largely regarded as two of the most acute “little” moviemakers in the art-house world. But even before calling them moviemakers, cinematographers, or artistes—and at the risk of saying something heavily clichéd that is likely to have been written about them before—the Belgian auteurs are documentarians of real life, reporters of vignettes of everyday events that they happen to record on camera.
In L’Enfant, the Dardennes combine crude Euro-realism and delicate hints of Antonioni-esque sentimentality, with the result a powerful, impassioned portrayal of a man torn between moral guilt and selfish greed. As you might have guessed, the premise isn’t new one. You don’t even have to trawl far back on the IMDB release list to find another movie loosely structured around a similar idea, with a similar storyline, and perhaps even a similar ending. Compassionate self-discovery makes for great cinema. In fact, 2005 alone provided a plethora of examples: Tsotsi, the Oscar-kissing faux-drama about a thug on a moral path out of crime and street-living, and Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped both followed their central characters through emotionally discouraging territory. For the Dardennes, however, novelty never comes in the form of a menacing script or bombastic camerawork. Their trademark touch lies in their delicate treatment of their protagonists, their unassuming absence from each of their frames, and the affecting fusion of musical overtones with cinéma vérité dramatisation.
The story in L’Enfant focuses on Bruno, an unemployed, 20-year old petty criminal and his 18-year old girlfriend, Sonia. The two live off her unemployment benefits and whatever amount Bruno and his strangely loyal gang manage to “accrue.” But their bottom-of-the-ladder existence is further complicated with the arrival of their son, Jimmy, whom Sonia readily embraces with ecstatic motherly pride. Bruno, however, isn’t taking it so happily. Unable to face his parental responsibilities and desperate for money, the newborn soon becomes a potential new source of wealth: Bruno is quick to sell him to an illegal child-trafficking gang, and the whole operation sends Sonia to the hospital as soon as she finds out. Getting both the baby and Sonia back is far from simple, and this is where L’Enfant develops its central conflict.
This said, the movie could have easily descended into predictability, with a script screaming “moral redemption” and “self-discovery” from every page. The beauty of L’Enfant lies not only in its refusal to accept any kind moral responsibility or to think of itself as a genre-movie of any sort, but in the way its characters are left to evolve at their own pace. The realistic style of the film is close to becoming an art-house cliché, yet for all its artlessness, the movie never devolves into showiness, leaving the viewer to make up his own mind as to the level of engagement to afford it. L’Enfant is also unceremoniously aware that reality and realistic-ness are not the same thing, and its construction of a very European shade of social realism is laconic and unpretentious.
There is little about Bruno with which to empathize, even less to like, yet despite his thoughtless attitude towards most of what he does, you don’t judge him. This is perhaps the Dardennes’ most significant triumph—they supply no ground for accusation or forgiveness, while by the end of the movie, you feel anything but indifferent towards the fate of its protagonists. In addressing issues of child welfare and central-European social commentary, the movie provides further layers for exploration that perhaps require a second viewing. The few who found the movie unremarkable argued about its lack of engagement, and, truth be told, L’Enfant is not the most instantly gripping of movies. However, it is also true that you only get out what you put in.