Director: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Starring: Jeremie Renier, Deborah Francois
Few filmmakers can pull off stories that are as heartbreakingly naturalistic as those by the Dardenne brothers. This quality is possibly most apparent in their 2005 film L’Enfant (“The Child”) which poetically strings together the carelessness of youth, the desperations of poverty, and the ugliness of the human condition, along with its remorseful repercussions. The Dardennes accomplish this painfully real vision with long unbroken takes, heavy usage of handheld camera, a complete lack of music, and performances of talented young actors pushed to dramatic lengths that they’d likely never endeavored.
Jeremie Renier plays Bruno, who thinks of real work as beneath him and would rather employ children to help him commit petty crimes. He walks with a façade of a man without a care in the world and values his jacket and his girlfriend above all else. Deborah Francois plays Sonia, who recently had his child and whose biggest fault seems to be her love for Bruno. One of the first things we learn is that Bruno was not present for the birth of his child.
But it is when Bruno is left alone with said child that we begin to suspect that he may be simply amoral; in order to make money for himself and Sonia, he obliges to sell the child on the black market and does so, under the pretense that he and Sonia can “make another one.” When he tells her about this, she reacts the way any mother would.
It is after this that we learn that there is more to Bruno than meets the eye. He is impulsive and reckless, but in the long takes of his facial expressions we feel the undercurrents of remorse, the panic, and the childlike desire to be back in Sonia’s embrace. But she is so understandably disgusted with him and refuses to accept him after his misdeed.
The film is only a little over 90 minutes long but beautifully depicts the cruelty of dispassion, of a father who doesn’t care for his child and a subsequent mother who doesn’t care about what happens to the father of her child. Bruno’s world begins to collapse around him after his thoughtless act, and like a wide-eyed toddler realizing his mistake, he scrambles for redemption.
The Dardenne brothers have a unique gift of pushing their actors to the depths of their psyches for the necessary emotions to play their roles. In Two Days, One Night they have Marion Cotillard desperately seek out support for her career while the audience can gradually see her underlying depression symptoms rise to the surface; in La Promesse and The Kid with a Bike they managed to do what many dramatic directors oftentimes only attempt, which is getting a great performance out of a child, in these cases children either riddled with guilt and shame or detached entirely from parental affection. And in L’Enfant we find ourselves feeling sorry for a man whose opening actions are so shameful and inconsiderate, that it’s a wonder that we didn’t hate him for the entire film. It’s not just in the fact that they created such a redemption, but how they built it. Not with fancy narrative techniques or even an exceptional script, there’s no flashbacks, no monologues, nothing to make us care about Bruno in any ironic way. The Dardenne’s don’t need these to solicit a reaction, for they use the simple method of directing—Summoning the proper commands from Jeremie Renier, who plays a very deeply flawed but still human character, and by editing and shooting the film with a particular rawness. There’s a great amount of long takes implying a sense of inner turmoil within the onscreen subject. None of the characters wear fancy costume designs or obvious makeup. There’s no music telling us when to feel things. Its outcomes and actions are realistic and imperfect, to the extent that one could call it “cynical.”
L’Enfant takes place in the indifferent world of the day-to-day individual, where life can very cruel, but, as we see in the film’s ending, it can also be forgiving. It’s too simple to talk about at length, but I’d easily implore fans of dramatic cinema to see it as soon as possible. I doubt I’ll ever see another film like it.