An infant is born into this world. His parents are homeless minors. The father, a feckless hand-to-mouth street hustler, casually sells the baby to black-market traffickers and then, astonished by his girlfriend’s hysterical reaction, must scramble frantically to recover the child.
Twice garlanded by the Cannes Film Festival, the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have a style and set of interests that are as instantly recognizable as those of any filmmakers in the world. Cine Dardenne is characterized by its hectic, rough-and-ready camerawork, impeccable performances, a concern with the urban dispossessed (specifically those living in the small industrial city of Seraing), and an unlikely affinity for Robert Bresson; the mode might be described as spiritually infused social realism.
As the brothers’ 1999 come-from-nowhere Cannes laureate Rosetta
suggested a Marxist remake of Bresson’s Mouchette, so their second Palme d’Or triumph, L’Enfant (premiered here at last fall’s New York Film Festival), revisits Bresson’s more abstract Pickpocket in its saga of crime, punishment, and redemption. The remarkable thing about the Dardennes—who made documentaries for two decades, years before going fictional—is their visceral single-mindedness. Each of their movies is an odyssey (toward grace?) through a world that could hardly seem more drably material.
As befits its emphasis on a family, L’Enfant is less tightly framed than either Rosetta or the Dardennes’ previous film, The Son, both of which focused primarily on a single individual. The teenage mother Sonia (neophyte actress Déborah François) is introduced as a high-spirited force of nature, rushing up a flight of stairs, bundled with a crying baby. Her role involves no moral imperative beyond maternity; her boyfriend, Bruno (Jérémie Renier, the young son in the Dardennes’ 1996 La Promesse), is, however, a more complicated piece of work.
Moments into the movie, Sonia discovers that while she was out giving birth, the father of her child has opportunistically sublet her flat—using the quick cash to outfit himself in a leather porkpie hat and striped windbreaker. First appearing some 15 minutes later and only mildly interested in the infant Sonia has named “Jimmy,” Bruno is far prouder of his new duds; given the opportunity, however, he buys Sonia a matching jacket and Jimmy an outsize baby basket.
A thief and a primitive entrepreneur, Bruno may not be particularly bright but he’s not evil, only impulsive and without regard for the repercussions of his deeds. In their relaxed moments, he and Sonia are as frisky as pups—always kicking and swatting each other—although it soon becomes evident that it is Bruno who is the movie’s eponymous child. Still, it’s hard to believe that he will actually sell Jimmy. Once Bruno has the problem of retrieving the baby, seeking to reverse the irreversible, the movie kicks in—not that this quick and unconvincing liar realizes what he’s done or why Sonia should stubbornly refuse to forgive him.
Redemption, for the Dardennes, is a function of taking responsibility for somebody else. (“Our characters are alone, and their sense of guilt makes them even more alone—until finally they find a connection with another human being,” they tell an interviewer in the current Sight & Sound.) The brothers may be Christian but they are not exactly mystics. The world is fueled by money and concerned with process, their own included. (It wouldn’t be a Dardennes film if you didn’t once wonder just how they managed to squeeze their camera into a car’s backseat.) As filmmakers, the brothers are fascinated not only by how mundane things happen, often in real time, but by the activity of waiting for something to happen—although, in Bruno’s case, even that has its hyperactive aspect.
One way or another, the Dardenne world is always in motion. The key image is one of their protagonist standing by the side of some multi-lane highway, poised to dash across but stymied by the heedless world speeding past. (The typical Dardenne sound mix is scarcely less abrasive—a noisy blend of whooshing traffic, stray honks, and street cries that evokes, even as it parodies, Bresson’s precise musique concréte.) Life is movement; it’s telling that the usually indifferent Bruno is powerfully affected by two, quite different, instances of hysterical paralysis suffered by his fellow creatures.
L’Enfant is Bruno’s journey, structured as a series of tasks, culminating in a chase that, both metaphoric and intensely physical, is also an agonizing descent into the depths. Above all, this is an action film—or, better, a transaction film. It’s not just that the Dardennes orchestrate an exciting motor scooter purse-snatching and a prolonged hot pursuit. L’Enfant is an action film because every act that happens is shown to have a consequence.