Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Belgium. 2006.
Reviewed by Alan Pavelin and Howard Schumann
The film starts with the girl Sonia (Deborah Francois) emerging from hospital with her new baby son Jimmy, but the focus quickly turns to the central character Bruno (Jeremie Renier), her feckless boyfriend who, dismissive of the notion of getting a job, lives by petty thieving (though with no hint of violence or drugs) in which he employs the services of 14-year-old boys. The film’s title could in fact apply to Bruno as well as to his baby. So unsympathetic a character is he that we are hardly surprised when, to feed his addiction to instant gratification, he casually sells Jimmy for illegal adoption. Sonia’s horrified reaction puts Bruno on the path to outgrowing his infantile behaviour and to a kind of redemption.
While most serious critics rightly see The Child as a masterpiece, one reviewer in a supposedly quality newspaper described it as “really just a French version of Cathy Come Home”, giving it just one star indicating “a no-no“. (Cathy Come Home was a renowned BBC TV play of the 1960s highlighting the plight of the homeless.) This aforementioned reviewer, who obviously thinks any film with French dialogue must be French, has completely missed the point. The Child is not a “social issues” drama, it is a brilliant character study, wonderfully filmed and acted, showing how the childish (as opposed to child-like) Bruno is gradually forced to face the realities of how to live. The viewer’s sympathy for him grows as the film progresses. At several points we see Bruno waiting, and the camera makes a point of holding these shots for a minute or two. For example, in one scene where he is waiting to be told where to leave the baby for its “adoption”, we see his face in semi-darkness, with an expression suggesting his emerging doubts about his course of action. A mere “social issues” drama would hardly waste time on these periods of waiting; did it never strike our reviewer who confuses his French with his Belgians that this waiting had some point? (Interestingly Rosetta, which I believe was never intended to be a “social issues” film, led to a reform of the Belgian law regarding the employment of teenagers.)
While the Dardennes can legitimately be seen as heirs of Bresson, there are fundamental differences. Their films are “realist”, in the sense that they do not adopt Bresson’s highly non-realist acting style. In this sense, The Child’s powerful ending has more in common with the devastating ending of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves than with Bresson’s Pickpocket. They are not as elliptical as Bresson‘s films, where the viewer has to infer large chunks of narrative which are not shown. But, like Bresson’s later films, they are totally devoid of music while making superb use of sound.
Early 2006 has seen the UK release of two exceptionally brilliant French-language films, utterly different from one another: Haneke’s Hidden, and now the Dardennes’ The Child. The former is clever, intriguing, but highly manipulative, while the latter is exhilarating, totally unmanipulative, and emotionally devastating. Everyone should see it, especially the aforementioned reviewer who this time should open his eyes.
Unlike some contemporary films that depict unethical behavior as "cool" and without consequence, the films of Jean and Luc Dardenne display a moral center and consequences for people's actions. Their latest effort, L'Enfant (The Child), winner of the Palme D'Or at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, is a fully realized, powerful work of art that brings back Jeremie Renier, ten years after his impressive debut in La Promesse. Set in an industrial city in eastern Belgium, L'Enfant is shot with the unmistakable Dardenne trademarks: a shaky hand-held camera, natural sounds with no background music, a concern for the underclass that globalization left behind, and a gritty and realistic look and feel.
Bruno (Ranier) and his girlfriend Sonia (Deborah Francois) live on the margins. He is a low-level thief, panhandler, and slacker who refuses to work and can only support his girlfriend by illegal means. It is clear that he loves Sonia but only in a playful, childlike way, not in a manner that recognizes adult responsibility. He lives for the moment rather than in the moment, pursuing instant gratification without thinking of how his actions may affect others. When she comes home from the hospital after giving birth to a baby boy she names Jimmy, she finds that Bruno has sublet her apartment in order to buy a jazzy windbreaker with stripes. With no apartment to go home to, the two are forced to huddle together on a cold embankment.
While Sonia waits in a long line for her unemployment check, Bruno, acting on a tip from a fence, impulsively decides on his own to sell Jimmy to a criminally connected adoption agency without thinking about how Sonia will react. When he tells her almost matter-of-factly what he did, she collapses and is rushed to the hospital. Bruno, showing remorse, tries to rescind the deal and retrieve Jimmy but is in over his head with a ruthless gang that demands he pay them a small fortune to compensate for their losses. Bruno begs Sonia to take him back and forgive him but she refuses. The more he tries to put his life in order, the deeper it sinks into chaos and, in a daring chase sequence, his reckless actions endanger the life of Steve (Jeremie Seard), his fourteen-year-old artful dodger.
The Dardennes do not tell us how to feel about Bruno and we are left to sort out our own reactions. A movie is not a court of justice," says Jean-Pierre Dardenne. "We try to make it so that the viewer feels many things about Bruno. When you see him selling the child, you think, 'No, this can't be, this is impossible.' But then the more you see him, the more you realize he's not just a bastard. You are forced to try to understand the character." Like the Dardenne's earlier films, the power of L'Enfant is cumulative. As Bruno evolves and we become more aware of his vulnerability, our capacity for forgiveness is challenged and the film prompts us to grow along with the character. In an ending that is unique and painfully touching, L'Enfant achieves a rare authenticity.
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