Child, The (L'Enfant)

Reviewed By PaulBryant
Posted 04/16/06 23:05:30

"Enfants having enfants."
3 stars (Just Average)

L’Enfant, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s newest feature film, is almost maddeningly simplistic in structure and ideas, and yet it appears to offer more than the grainy, naturally-lit photography which meets the eyes of its audience. The question then becomes, is what it offers as profound as the brothers Dardenne seem to think it is? The short answer: not really. For the long version, read on.

I suppose the Dardenne brothers can represent both a defense of and a mockery of the infamous auteur theory, as they certainly are the authors (rather, auteurs, to be linguistically and Andrew Sarrisly correct) of L’Enfant, having co-written and co-directed the film. Of course, auteurism was famous for saying that one man was the author of a film – the director – not two men – the directors – and so the Dardennes seem to be simultaneously breaking and confirming a rule that nobody has been able to fully get their head around. Somehow their films are able to provide the latest thorn in the side of auteurists and, conversely, the next complicated premise for their rather complicated argument. I don't know what the upshot of all this will be, but good on the Dardennes, I say.

In any event, this film is certainly all theirs, and they’ve nabbed some prestigious goodies at festival-type places where the film was screened. Cannes, for one, gave the duo their second Palme D’Or when it played at the festival last year. So it must be un film extraordinaire, oui-non? Well, possibly; but then again, possibly not. Let us not forget that a certain Michael Moore won in 2004, perhaps clouding the validity of the award for the next few years.

Regardless, the films centers around two unfortunately star-crossed lovers, Bruno (Jeremy Renier) and Sonia (Deborah Francois), who live in a drab Belgium town without jobs or a stable roof over their blonde heads. What’s worse, they’ve recently produced a baby boy, the way silly young lovers do every now and then. Of course, being homeless and hopeless, the two don’t have any place to keep the child other than a stylish pram afforded by Bruno’s semi-profitable racket of petty theft and panhandling – their only means of subsistence.

When we first see Bruno he’s begging for change at a bustling intersection, wearing a dusty leather jacket that will prove his cleanest bit of wardrobe. Bruno’s a dope, and not a particularly lovable one. When Sonia suggests he get a job to support her and their new child, Bruno brushes such an outrageous claim off through puffs of cigarette smoke: “Only fuckers get jobs.” Though he has no contacts or opportunity, we expect the indignant young fellow wouldn’t get a job even if he was offered one. He’d rather spend his days hustling, scraping together whatever he can to survive that next day, even if that means he’ll have to continue using the underpass of a highway as his personal closet.

Slowly, whatever initial attraction we might have felt towards Bruno’s ho-hum anarchism and niggardly nihilism grows sour, as it becomes apparent the child, whom they name Jimmy, doesn’t have the most upstanding of fathers. These plausible fears are eventually proved more than correct when Bruno decides he’ll sell poor little Jimmy in the underground Belgian adoption trade. Got to pay the rent, I suppose – even when you’re quite content to sleep under a bridge. However, Bruno’s baby-for-cash initiative doesn’t exactly thrill Sophia (imagine!) and Bruno gets in deep shit when he explains to her what happened.

The movie details this weighty setup and the drawn-out conclusion that follows in an extremely brazen effort of verisimilitude. Thus, the camerawork is intended look as though a lens merely happened upon these two without the accompaniment of crews, lights, scripts, or other movie-making realities. So much for Orson Welles proclaiming movie-making the greatest toy train set a boy ever had. This is beyond-grim stuff, where one worries that the actors portraying the characters immersed in the chilly waters of a muddy river might actually get hypothermia or drown before one’s eyes. L’Enfant is not the cinema of toy trains, surely, but of rusty, lumbering, dilapidated railcars overgrown with stringy tufts of grass and cobwebs and guarded by the poisoned sap of giant stalks of hogweed.

But therein lies the problem – we think of Bruno and Sonia as actors pretending so very hard to be "real" instead of creating honest characters. We are aware that what is happening to them isn’t actually happening to them, but is orchestrated by the two masters behind the camera. The attempt at verisimilitude backfires the more it takes on the appearance of austere documentary; we interrupt our cinema experience by asking, “is this a documentary?” Then, of course, we affirm that it is not; that these are merely actors and that the directors have created a reality so expertly that we are overwhelmed by its authenticity. Thus, paradoxically, in this state of being overwhelmed, we shatter the cinema’s reality-illusion by acknowledging that the illusion is almost too real to pass as “cinema real”.

Or to sum up in a condensed, less circuitous form, the style doesn’t allow escapism, it impedes it.

Of course, then there’s the story to talk about, which had enormous potential for all sorts of emotional and intellectual catharses, dealing as it does with poverty stricken youths in a dire situation. And, though the film does offer a final “epiphany moment” as a saving grace for all its bleak surveillance of bleak souls, L’Enfant never fully establishes in our minds or hearts a desire for Bruno to learn anything he shouldn’t already know. Worse, we don’t glean enough specific personal understanding from the study of his outrageous actions to make the lack of resolution tolerable. He’s young, he’s broke, he shouldn’t have had a kid, he shouldn’t have sold the kid he did have, and he doesn’t deserve a woman as trusting and innocent as Sonia. Pathos is quite difficult when we feel this way.

Thus, on both an intellectual and emotional level and on both an objective and subjective understanding of the thematic elements of the story, L’enfant doesn’t satisfy. Worse, it leaves us feeling drained for having watched ninety-minutes of labored minutiae as we awaited that grand moment of understanding which never came, or, at least, which came like a muted trumpet instead of a heartbreaking fortissimo.

What the Dardenne’s have accomplished here seems to fall under what Andrew Sarris would have at one time dubbed “strained seriousness.” In other words, the auteurs desperately want to make a tragic mountain out of a pitiable molehill. Hence, they need to fill in a lot of blanks in order to bring us from introduction to catharsis, and mostly these blanks come off as just that. Take L’Enfant or leave it, but if you take it, you might leave it before it’s over.

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