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Child, The (L'Enfant)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"How did this beat 'A History of Violence' or 'Cache' for the Palme d'Or?"
3 stars

Ever since it premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, “L’Enfant,” the latest film from Belgian filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, has been collecting rave reviews from around the world praising its spare storytelling, realistic performances and a finale that shows a seemingly irredeemable scoundrel groping for forgiveness, redemption and salvation at the hands of a pure and angelic young woman. Inevitably, these reviews make reference to the works of the late French director Robert Bresson, whose legendarily austere works (especially “Pickpocket”) have been a chief source of inspiration for the Dardennes throughout their films. If I wanted to, I could easily knock out a review that would include all of these elements and simply call it a night, especially considering the fact that the majority of those reading this will probably never actually get around to seeing it in the first place. And yet, I cannot write such a thing because to do so would mean that I would have to overlook the fact that it is a grim and glum slog that is so hell-bent on being a profound emotional experience that it winds up suffocating itself. In other words, this is one of those films that turns out to be good for you without ever being especially good.

As the film opens, 18-year-old Sonia (newcomer Deborah Francois) returns from the hospital to her apartment, carrying her newborn son, only to discover that Bruno (Jeremie Renier), her boyfriend and the father of the child, has sublet it to a couple of his friends for a few days. When she finally tracks him down, he has already spent the money on a new jacket and suggests that they bunk in a shelter for the time being. For Bruno, this doesn’t appear to be behavior that is at all surprising–operating under the belief that, as he puts it, “only f------ work,” he spends his days spare-changing on the street or committing petty thefts with a youthful colleague (Jeremie Segard) and then squandering the proceeds from both as quickly as he makes them. (The joke, of course, is that he probably puts more energy and effort into his schemes than he would expend at a real job.) While he demonstrates some affection in Sonia –she is pretty and evidently willing to put up with enormous loads of crap from him–he has no real interest in his child. At first, he takes the kid out with him to bum for change and when that doesn’t work out, he takes up the suggestion of one of his criminal colleagues and blithely sells the child on the black market. After all, he tells Sonia when he eventually gets around to telling her, they can always have another one sometime.

Shockingly, Sonia doesn’t take this news as well as Bruno must have hoped–she winds up in the hospital and informs the police of what he did. In order to get back into her good graces and, more importantly, save his own skin, Bruno sets off to retrieve the child. Amazingly, he manages to get him back and return him to Sonia, but discovers that he has finally crossed a line that his charm can’t overcome. Sonia throws him out and refuses to see him, the cops want to investigate him because of Sonia’s claim and the criminals that bought the child in the first place are insisting that he pay them an enormous penalty price for the child’s return. While trying to achieve all of these goals, he finds himself getting into more trouble, culminating in another moment in which he needs to choose between the lure of easy money and the life of a child and a finale in which he finally learns regret for his life of relentless self-interest.

Although this may sound like the most purple and melodramatic of material, the approach chosen by the Dardennes is anything but–they prefer a naturalistic approach that includes performances by relatively unknown actors (only Renier, who got his start with them as a child in 1996's “La Promesse,” has any significant body of work among the major cast members), a documentary-like visual style (even the car chase scene that occurs is captured in an off-hand manner that suggests that the filmmakers happened upon it) and the complete absence of any musical score that could tip the emotions of viewers. This particular style of filmmaking has inspired great work from them before–their 1999 Cannes winner “Rosetta,” in which a poor young girl struggles mightily to snare and keep a job at all costs, remains one of the most powerful and harrowing films of the last few years–but for some reason, it just doesn’t quite click this time around. Every scene has been so meticulously crafted for the maximum allowed amount of emotional devastation that it doesn’t allow viewers to ever feel these things for themselves. Even though it is aesthetically a million miles removed from such a thing, “L’Enfant” is, at its core, just as manipulative in its own way as any Julia Roberts weepie that you could mention.

The other problem with the film is that the Dardennes have given us a central character who is so creepy, charmless and unlikable that it is impossible to feel anything about him or his eventual stabs at redemption. In a film like Bresson’s “Pickpocket,” the central character–a compulsive thief who shrugged off the love of a good woman and blithely ignored his dying mother–was a jerk and a creep but there was still something compelling and decent about him in his struggle with his darker impulses that made its famously redemptive finale believable. Here, Bruno is a jerk throughout and his central act of selling his child, which occurs within the first 20-odd minutes of the film, is so monstrous that it becomes impossible to dredge up any sympathy for him in the later reels as his past catches up with him. And as played by Renier, Bruno comes across as a charmless, charisma-free jerk who is so unlikable that you not only develop zero interest in him, you retroactively consider Sonia a ninny for putting up with him for as long as she apparently has.

Walking out of “L’Enfant,” I found myself grudgingly admiring the film on a technical level while being slightly annoyed with it on an emotional level. What I still can’t grasp is how this film won the top prize at Cannes over such clearly worthier titles as “A History of Violence,” “Cache,” “Broken Flowers,” “Last Days” and “Don’t Come Knocking.” All of those titles told complicated stories that inspired deep emotions without resorting to the hard sell tactics that the Dardennes have done here. There are moments of value in “L’Enfant” and I suppose that those interested in the world cinema scene should probably check it out but if you haven’t seen any of the other movies cited earlier in this paragraph yet, you should make catching up with them a higher priority.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=12784&reviewer=389
originally posted: 04/14/06 00:13:21
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2005 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2005 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Portland Film Festival For more in the 2006 Portland Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/10/06 Phil M. Aficionado Nicely made, kinda interesting, but I don't see it as one of those "special" movies 3 stars
10/19/05 Donny B. Not one of the Dardenne's best, but still a good film compared to most! 4 stars
9/28/05 E. Northam Examination of the sad, pathetic lives of those existing on the margins 3 stars
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  DVD: 15-Aug-2006



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