Young, unprepared mothers and the men who disrespect them, child neglect, teenage street criminals ... the subject matter of L'Enfant (The Child) couldn't seem more grittily, glumly American.
And yet, surprisingly enough, this is a film from Belgium — the wealthy West European country that's home to NATO and hosts sessions of the Parliament of the European Union. Unlike decadently selfish America, the people of Belgium are supposed to have enough of a cooperative civic spirit to combat the kind of problems depicted in L'Enfant.
The Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, have been making a career of stripping away such presumptions. In La Promesse, Rosetta, The Son and now L'Enfant, they have concentrated on characters, often young, having trouble surmounting life's socioeconomic challenges.
They have also been making a career of stripping away the artifice of narrative filmmaking, going for a dispassionately observed, documentary-style naturalism that is worlds away from Hollywood.
It's also far removed from the self-consciously anti-Hollywood "Dogme" movement of Danish directors like Lars von Trier, although there are parallels with Ken Loach's work out of Britain. The Dardenne approach brings out the best in their actors, since they're free to be intuitive in following the truth of their characters. (The film is, however, carefully scripted.)
In L'Enfant, which won the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival, the Dardenne brothers have married their aesthetic to a gripping story of desperation that subtly takes on thriller dimensions.
Yet plot developments always feel unforced. The characters seem in control of the story's flow even if not their lives.
Young Sonia (Deborah Francois), a teenager just released from the hospital with her newborn, goes looking for her slightly older boyfriend, Bruno (Jeremie Renier), and finds him on the street. He is restless and sullen, far more interested in earning money from street crime than in accepting fatherhood. One quickly sizes him up and knows Sonia's motherhood is not going to be a bed of roses. As it quickly develops, it won't even always be one with a bed to sleep on.
Thin, restless Bruno is a distant cousin to many similar moody young men in French New Wave and film-noir movies of the 1950s and 1960s — especially Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless and Robert Bresson's Pickpocket. But he's a cold-hearted sociopath and corrupter of youth; his coterie of thieves includes his most faithful acolyte, baby-faced Steve (Jeremie Segard), who is still in school.
Bruno is not a romantic outlaw. He's so dispassionately amoral that he can't even see his infant son Jimmy as a human being, much less his own child. One can conclude that the Dardenne brothers see in that response nothing less than the state of the modern world.
So he does an abhorrent thing: He sells the baby. He discovers a secretive criminal ring willing to move a "hot" child for black-market adoption. Why not? It's just raw material for what really counts — making money.
It is after this exchange that the Dardenne brothers decide to administer a shock to Bruno's closed-down emotional system. As it dawns on Sonia that the baby is gone, she faints. This seems to scare the humanity out of his thick hide, and he becomes desperate to regain her confidence and return her child. But the criminal gang won't let him off so easily — he has to pay a premium to get the infant back.
As Bruno attempts to do that, the movie ever so slowly begins to at least consider the fact he deserves a chance at redemption. At a crucial moment, he receives some trust from his estranged mother (Mireille Bailly). And as he and Steve foul up a purse-snatching and must hide from pursuers, the perils of the chase endangering the younger accomplice, he finally realizes he must accept responsibility for the harm he's brought to others. Like all newborn children, L'Enfant ultimately holds out hope for the future.
While L'Enfant is grippingly realistic overall, helped by its camerawork and editing, there are a few plot points that cause second-guessing. For instance, is there really a market for selling babies in Belgium and Western Europe? It strikes me as a falsity.
There's also the matter of the child, who often is inside a carriage that Bruno and Sonia wheel around and thus out of our view. As Anthony Lane pointed out in The New Yorker, Jimmy is awfully quiet and content for a newborn. As a result, he sometimes feels more like a McGuffinesque story device than a real baby. And his cooperative passivity allows these inexperienced parents to cope with him far more easily than seems right.
Recently at the Nashville Film Festival, I saw a powerful documentary by Julie Gustafson called Desire, in which several New Orleans teen mothers struggle to care for their babies and figure out the confusing relationships with the young men who fathered them. There are tragic dimensions to their lives but also real love and a desire to do the right thing for a future generation. How they will turn out remains unresolved at the film's end.
It reminded me that L'Enfant, while fiction, is not escapist fantasy. Some things also remain unresolved at the end.
The Dardenne brothers deserve all praise for believing this is the kind of story we want to see at the movies and for using their estimable cinematic skills to make it engrossing and to keep it as honestly realistic as they can. Grade: A-