In the vast landscape of film releases varnished with the veneer of realism, very few manage to create more than an impression of reality. The majority tends to confine to it to one layer of controlled, semaphoric signs. With The Child, the Dardenne brothers have managed to create something so mimetically powerful than not even the most tightly plotted thrillers could dream to achieve. The veteran Belgian documentarians had already shown that their low-key, laconic, non-geographical cinema is one of the most original currently being made in Europe (they made the quiet masterpiece, The Son, 2002, and Rosetta, 2000). After a recent appearance at the National Film Theatre in London and recognition at the last Cannes film festival, the brothers should finally enter the radar of a bigger public than the one that already follows their work.
The Child shows the devastating effect that sudden responsibility has on an unprepared young man in an unspecified rainy, industrial Belgian city. Bruno is a 20-year-old petty criminal making ends meet in the streets of a rather depressive looking city. He is something of a ring-leader of a gang of boys to whom he seems quite sincerely devoted. His girlfriend Sonia had a baby by him and comes back from hospital to show him Jimmy. He is indifferent to the child while Sonia tries to instil some affection in him. But that doesn’t work: he still succumbs to the temptation of selling his own infant to an illegal adoption ring. The shock takes Sonia to hospital and, for fear of going to jail; he manages to retrieve the baby and become a target for ruthless criminals. He has no choice left but grow up.
Although the Dardenne brothers are not concerned with a very specific ethos or creating a portrait of a particular class or place, the characters in The Child are unmistakably Northern European. Anyone living in this part of the world will recognise the Brunos and Sonias seen in the streets of gray city centres, nervously pushing their prams, sucking on their cigarettes with jittery hands, their vacant eyes functioning as a shield between their inscrutable selves and the world around them.
These neglected characters living in a post-industrial society seem to have partially lost some of the primal instincts that the poor in developing countries have kept out of necessity and the absence of a welfare state. Bruno fails to respond to his paternal instinct out of apathy, not wickedness. Sonia understands she has become a mother, but that doesn’t stop her from hopping on a motorbike, clutching against her chest without any straps a vulnerable baby who’s only a few days old. Cooking a meal means throwing some tomatoes into a pan with water.
The hooded baby being tossed around throughout the film is a distressing, toe-curling motif. It is a suggestion of Europe’s complicated relationship with its young and taps into current debates of child safety and the paedophilia paranoia, although this is by no means an ‘issues’ film. The Child is also similar to Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing, but it surpasses the latter because, unlike Leigh’s film, there’s no vestige of thespianism underlying the acting (Jérémie Renier and Déborah François are both flawless, by the way). Similarly, both films touch on issues of food and ignorance of nutrition, one of the ghosts currently haunting the developed world.
Also unlike Leigh, the Dardenne brothers avoid wallowing in misery. Despite the bleakness evoked by description, The Child is not a Harrowing Film. It is a mesmerising display of humanity, acting and directorial skills that forms on the screen a type of naturalism that is almost extinct from Western cinema. It is a rare, warts-and-all sighting of reality, or something very close to it.
The Child is currently playing in the UK.