The brothers Dardenne, (Jean-Pierre & Luc) are Belgian filmmakers who've added considerable luster to that country's global standing in movie production. They began their joint careers as documentarians, but with films like The Promise (1996), Rosetta (1999) and The Son, (2002) they have assembled an oeuvre that combines the gritty cinematic realism of France's New Wave with the caustic social commentary of British directors such as Mike Leigh. Working from their own screenplays, this talented pair examines, in minute detail, the painfully narrow horizons of the working poor in Western European societies. Relying on handheld cameras, limited dialogue and brutally candid portrayals, their movies evoke sympathy, despair and anger in equal measure. Seeing a Dardenne film is never easy, but always rewarding. Unfortunately, their latest is long on the former, but curiously short on the latter.
L'Enfant follows the brief and disastrous efforts of Bruno, a young petty criminal and his barely legal girlfriend Sophia to care for their newborn son. The movie opens with Sophia's departure from a government hospital and ends a few days later in a prison visiting room. What transpires in between is a curious mixture of acute observation and misplaced confidence in storyline. Bruno is an immature, self-absorbed street punk who fancies himself a rebel. Wearing a jaunty hat, (reminiscent of Jean-Paul Belmundo's in Breathless) and scorning any notion of legitimate employment, he's sublet Sophia's apartment for spending money while she was delivering their baby and fails to meet his teenage mistress when she and their son are released from the maternity ward. He busies himself with small-time thievery, employing a pair of feral-looking young 13-year olds who look up to him as a mastermind of small-time rip-offs. But Bruno's self-assurance & criminal expertise are limited to nickel and dime stuff; he's given to simple panhandling in his spare time. When a fence buying the loot from one of Bruno's scores notes that there's a good market for babies, Bruno scoops up his child and sells him. When he off-handedly tells Sophia what he's done, (and informs her that they can always have another child) she collapses, fingering Bruno to the emergency room staff where he's taken her for treatment. The film then follows Bruno's increasingly desperate attempts to repurchase his flesh and blood while avoiding a pair of goons who want to extort money from him which they insist they lost when he reneged on the deal. Their strong-arm tactics pressure Bruno into a trying for a bigger score than his limited talents and capacities can pull off; his accomplice gets picked up by the police and Bruno turns himself in to make sure his associate won't be held primarily responsible. Bruno gets to wear an ill-fitting orange prison uniform and tearfully apologize to Sophia at the fade-out…
All this is delivered with the Ardennes' trademark attention to the details of working class life; the long lines at social service agencies, the grubby apartments and dark, noisy pubs and depressing pawn-shops which serve as substitute banks for those on the fringes of any 1st world economy. The script chronicles a tough life that would be daunting for a pair of determined, stable adults; how can these two, in need of rearing themselves, raise the child they have so nonchalantly brought into the world? Bruno's a poor candidate for plain old adulthood, much less parenting; Sophia's a pretty young thing who wants to care for her baby, but she's susceptible to Bruno's fantasy life as well; rented convertibles and "hanging out" are far more interesting than changing diapers and warming the baby's bottle. When Bruno decides that a couple of nights of parenthood are enough, his "cash for a kid" deal shows him to be both feral and stupid; should an audience feel any real sympathy for this self-absorbed loser?
Yet that's exactly what the directors intend; they spend the last half the film empathizing with the pimply-faced Bruno, as if his descent into seriously felonious crime and the pain he suffers as a result somehow offset the callous behavior which preceded it. In the end, the Dardennes suggest that Bruno's surrender and tearful confrontation with Sophia signify his redemption; the audience can be excused for concluding that Bruno simply felt that he ran out of options and that he's counting on once again being able to con Sophia into come to his rescue.
Typically astute in its handling of the minutia of class distinctions and terribly earnest in its intent, L'Enfant fails to evoke the reactions its author/directors worked so hard to develop. While there is much here to reflect on concerning the plight of those caught at the bottom of Europe's social structure, Bruno makes a surprisingly poor concrete example, especially coming from a team noted for their ability to deliver social criticism with discomforting accuracy and clear-eyed compassion. Despite this film's Palm d'Or at Cannes, (the equilavent of an Oscar for best picture) this is one exercise in audience angst you can afford to skip.
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