If memory serves, only three other filmmakers, Francis Ford Coppola, Emir Kusturíca and Shohei Imamura, had won the top prize at Cannes twice when the Dardennes, Jean-Pierre and Luc, entered this highly exclusive circle. Their L’enfant won the world’s most prestigious film prize, the Palme d’Or, as had, earlier, their Rosetta (1999). A Belgium-France co-production, L’enfant—The Child—since then has also won Sweden’s Guldbagge Award as best foreign-language film and swept Belgium’s Joseph Plateau Awards, winning in five categories: best film, director, actor, actress, screenplay.
Although I do not hold the Belgian brothers in contempt, as I do Coppola, who pretty much sticks to making wine and (tepid) pasta sauce nowadays, I am not always in their camp. Their much lauded Le fils (2002) just had me scratching my head. I do not see what the fuss is about.
Nor do I now. L’enfant is a very good piece of work, mind you, not an example of Euro-trash. Anything the Dardennes write and direct has a lot to commend it. But L’enfant strikes me as being Bresson-lite and Dostoievski-lite, and I’m beginning to weary of all these films of late about “bad boys” who are somehow “redeemed.” Young Bruno’s girlfriend in L’enfant, the mother of his child, is named Sonia. Whereas others glean here monumental truth, or at least the comfort of literary reassurance, I am inclined to mutter, “Dust oy vey-ski!” The brothers have wrought a highly engaging, mostly superficial film. It is nonsense to compare L’enfant to Dostoievski, whose works are distinguished by such extraordinary density and humane and philosophical inquiry. On the other hand, I appreciate the fact that fans of the Dardennes feel that the lightness of their films is in tune with the spirit of the time. I would prefer, though, a little less spirit and more substance, this time of ours be damned. None of the Dardennes’ movies possesses the gravity or the gripping unity of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) or Mouchette (1966).*
In a drab industrial part of Belgium, Bruno is a street punk, a petty thief whose mother wants as little to do with him as possible. Until she locks him out, Bruno is staying with his girlfriend, Sonia, whose small apartment is subsidized by public assistance. Sonia locks Bruno out because he has sold their infant child, Jimmy, for cash, unaware that this is the wrong thing to do. (His own mother’s lack of parental concern has proven a horrible example by which to model his own behavior.) Sonia goes ballistic, despite the wad of cash Bruno brings to the table as a result of the sale, confounding the boy’s anticipation of approval, at least this once. Wanting desperately to be loved, Bruno is, in fact, the one to whom the title of the film most likely refers. He sells Jimmy in order to feel useful. He fails to take into account either Sonia’s heart or his own, so, in a way, it is an unselfish—though not a selfless—act. His reasoning is adolescent: he and Sonia can have another baby.
Curiously, Sonia is so hard and unforgiving, even after Bruno retrieves Jimmy and returns him to her, that many will favor him over her. The road to Hell may be paved with good intentions, but there is more to Bruno than good intentions. He badly wants to please Sonia, and when she turns a cold heart to him—she makes no attempt to understand him even as he does everything he can to accommodate her—he is at a pathetic loss. In his solitudinous adolescent egotism it occurs to Bruno only much later that he has violated a sacred family bond by selling his and Sonia’s baby. For now, he feels that Sonia’s shutting him out is depriving him of the only family he has, the family he desperately needs to compensate for the lack of love he felt growing up. The causality involved, his own (at least partial) responsibility for Sonia’s unyielding reaction, will have to wait to occur to him. Right now, he has other things to worry about. While he has returned the money to the gangster to whom he had sold Jimmy, the gangster is now out the money he would have made by selling the baby to a couple on the black market, and he expects Bruno to come up with that additional impossible amount of money as well. The gangster’s advice: Instead of stealing for yourself, steal for me. Bruno does the best he can in this regard, but for the most part he is on the run and hiding all over town from the gangster and his thugs, who have already beaten the crap out of him as an inducement to pay up. When he impresses a young boy, an orphan in a state facility, into the service of his criminal mischief and the latter is caught by the police, Bruno takes his second step toward redemption—undoing the deal regarding Jimmy was the first—by turning himself in and taking the blame. (This follows nearly getting the younger boy killed.) Sonia visits him in prison. They touch heads across the table at which they are seated, and both break down in tears. Such a finale is closer to Eric Rohmer than to Bresson. There is even a tinge of Spielberg to it.
This unsatisfying ending seems to come out of nowhere, and it is additionally weakened by the fact that the change of heart that presumably has brought cold, taciturn Sonia to the prison in the first place hasn’t been charted; it has taken place entirely offscreen. Overall, there is more action in the film than any kind of penetrating analysis of either character, and the depressed socioeconomic milieu is not sounded out as contributing in any way to Bruno’s mindset or predicament. The film more or less lays responsibility for his actions on Bruno, whereas the truth is far more complex. While the Dardennes admirably refrain from castigating Bruno for anything, they nonetheless keep their eye on him, refusing to take into account the myriad of oppressive forces that help determine such behavior as he exhibits. Too much of the film plays like a suspenseful thriller.
But the worst aspect of the film by far is its careless, too often meaningless mise-en-scène. This may seem almost inconceivable, as though I am straining to be as harsh as possible, but I cannot recall a single apt or beautiful shot in the entire film. L’enfant, I’m afraid, supplies scads of entertainment but little, if any, aesthetic or intellectual pleasure.
The film’s single greatest asset is Jérémie Renier, who was 15 when he played Igor in the Dardennes’ La promesse (1996) and who gives here a tremendous performance as Bruno. This prolific young actor, you may recall, played Joseph, the estranged son of Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Jacques, in Bertrand Bonello’s The Pornographer (2001). Léaud’s boy? What can I say; I love the kid!
* But see my “formal capsule film comment” about the Dardennes’ earlier La promesse. I had seen this film at least twice prior to my seeing L’enfant, but only now, today, have I formulated the generalization pertaining to the Dardenne brothers’ style with which the entry about La promesse ends. The point is this: I may have been wrongly dismissive of the Dardennes’ achievement in L’enfant; if I had applied to my appreciation of the film the formulation I make at the end of the entry about La promesse, my judgment about the later film might have been considerably more positive. Contrarily, it is also possible that the Dardennes stretched their style too thin in L’enfant; but, in art, it is an educative and enlightening thing to go “too far.” As poet William Blake perfectly put it, “You cannot know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.”
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