L’Enfant (The Child) is the sixth feature film written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the fourth to receive wide international distribution, and the second to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. That’s quite a track record for the low-key brothers whose work has never screamed ‘masterpiece’. But, for their admirers, the acclaim is only logical. Has a better film been made so far this decade than Le Fils (The Son), their 2002 offering? I had it as the best film of the year on this very website, and I stand by that today. The fact that it topped all their previous work really is saying something, as La Promesse and Rosetta (their first Palme d’Or winner) are both superb. L’Enfant, then, has been, for this viewer and for quite a few others, eagerly awaited.
As with their previous films, the world of L’Enfant is the industrial town of Seraing, close to Liege in southern, French-speaking Belgium. Young couple Bruno (Jeremie Renier) and Sonia (Deborah Francois) have just had a baby, Jimmy, but they seem almost unable to take care of themselves, let alone a child. Bruno is a petty thief, complete with a couple of teenage street helpers to do his bidding. Sonia initially seems to be a bit smarter, but still she is enraptured by the ramshackle charms of Bruno and easily swayed by his immature behaviour. But he is more than she has bargained for: desperate for cash, he sells the baby. When Sonia finds out, she is so distraught she has to be hospitalized. Bruno’s reasoning – that he thought the two of them would have another child – shows just how far his need to survive has outstripped his acknowledgement of his new son. His desire to get the baby back gets him into even deeper trouble, as he finds himself in debt to criminals tougher than him. This is therefore a study of a young man reaching a crisis point and needing to grow up fast if he is to sort things out.
It’s a gripping experience, following Bruno and Sonia and their little boy (played, the end credits tell us, by twenty-one different babies!) from boarding house to their own flat (which Bruno is prone to lending out) as they struggle with their way of life and how to adapt to the responsibilities of parenthood. This movie illustrates very well the urgency and immediacy which the brothers have demonstrated time and again. But it has to be said, L’Enfant is the first film by the Dardennes not to represent an advance on their previous work.
Perhaps that is so because it’s not as stylistically radical as before. They make films without music soundtracks which tell us what to feel, they use predominantly hand-held cameras, and they edit minimally. In Rosetta, the camera follows the main character everywhere, at close quarters; in Le Fils, there are no edits within scenes, and Olivier Gourmet, playing the carpentry teacher, is in every single shot of the movie. Part of the impact of those films comes from the refreshing style, which does without all the clichès of classical Hollywood cinema while also avoiding the trap of style for style’s sake. But L’Enfant, although employing many of the same techniques, is a bit more conventional aesthetically.
Which would be fine if there were an advance on subject matter or ideologies. But L’Enfant is fairly obvious stuff – from the outset you can pretty much predict the emotional journey you’re about to go on, and the ending that the story will reach. And when have we ever been able to say that about one of their movies? Not that it’s a bad thing, necessarily – part of the pleasure of certain types of story is that, to a large extent, we do know where we’re going, we know what pleasures we can expect. L’Enfant contains pleasures – Bruno’s latest street theft, for example, becomes a riveting chase sequence, which offers another glimmer (after Le Fils) that the Dardennes’ cinema is a sort of action cinema, one concerned with moral as well as physical suspense. And the change that comes over Bruno, as a result of his actions going too far, is beautifully imperceptible and perceptible at the same time. But where the ending is, I think, intended to deliver a transcendental realisation, a spiritual awakening, we are, instead, left feeling a bit ‘Yeah yeah’ about it – rather than the feeling of ‘Yes!’ which had ended the previous movies.
There’s something a bit familiar about aspects of the casting and setting, too. Jeremie Renier, who plays Bruno, was Igor, the lad in La Promesse – now, ten years later, he is playing the lead again. (And in the scenes where he drives on the motorbike, he looks eerily like Igor grown up, a definite, intriguing link from the earlier movie to this one.) He’s very good here – but in the interim he has become an accomplished and sophisticated young actor, in films like Les Amants criminals (Criminal Lovers), Le Pornographe (The Pornographer) and Le Pacte des Loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf). And so, while technically he’s good as Bruno, one can’t help feeling that he’s a bit too accomplished – that he’s giving a good performance, rather than ‘being’ Bruno. Newcomer Deborah Francois, too, is very good but perhaps a bit too poised for her role. Thus, when we are seeing Bruno and Sonia’s ‘childish’ behaviour – their play-fighting in the car, throwing their lunch at each other in the park, or throwing stones at each other by the river – these moments feel a bit workshopped, a bit too illustrative of the theme, and the title, rather than growing organically out of the material. Furthermore, with the inclusion of Fabrizio Rongione (from Rosetta) as a thug, and Olivier Gourmet in a brief appearance as a cop, the cast starts to resemble something like a Dardenne brothers ‘stock company’. Which, again, would be fine, only it helps to explain the slight feeling of repetitiveness.
And I even might have detected a couple of instances of self-consciousness in the movie – another first. It would be quite remarkable if the brothers had managed to avoid this altogether. After all, in the past year they have won their second Palme d’Or (an achievement shared by only four other directors), they have been decorated by the King of Belgium, and they have received ever more praise from the critics (complete with a season, last month, at the NFT). It’s great that they have remained committed to the working-class life in Seraing. But the moment where Bruno crawls into his cardboard box for the night and puts the lid on it and it looks like a coffin, and the ending, with its allusion to Bresson’s Pickpocket, seem straining a bit for effect, where previously everything felt as though it was stemming from real life. One might almost say that L’Enfant comes close to being a parody of a Dardenne brothers film – except that I’m not sure anyone else could ‘do’ the Dardennes as well as they can do it themselves.
L’Enfant is not great, then – but it is compelling and superbly made. If it had come before the other films, we would be saying ‘masterpiece’ again.