For a character study, "L'enfant" pulls you along as smoothly as its main character motors on a scooter while trying to evade police. The writing/directing team of Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne give viewers an up-close look at a petty thief and black marketeer at a crucial time in his life that's surprisingly engaging, more offbeat than downbeat.
And the filmmakers, who earned another Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for their latest effort, waste no time in making this character appear both fascinating and repulsive. In other words, the Dardennes chose to depict this fellow from the point of view of his young girlfriend. In the first scene, we learn that he's sublet his girlfriend's apartment without her knowledge during the time she was in the hospital giving birth, so that she has no place to stay when released earlier than he expected. He spends her money on frivolous clothes for himself while refusing to get a job as the welfare worker suggests, saying "only fuckers work." The epitome of immaturity, he relates to his girlfriend the way that third-graders do. Not knowing how to show affection or say the right thing, the two of them slap each other playfully, chase each other, bite each other, or spray soda on each other. Or relate to each other sexually. When he's asked to walk the baby in their baby buggy, he uses it as an enhancement to panhandle, walking up to people and asking for spare change so he can buy cigarettes. A real sweetheart, right?
What's worse, at least from an audience's point-of-view, is that young Bruno (Jérémie Renier) isn't just a petty thief and panhandler who has no sense of adult responsibility. He's a Belgian Fagin, with a gang of four or five young boys who steal for him and bring him objects to sell on the black market.
This isn't a spoiler, because it's out there in the original trailer and on the cover notes, but everything is such a commodity to Bruno that he does the unthinkable. He sells their nine-day-old baby to a black market contact who is brokering an illegal "adoption." And that's how this loser's life is jolted enough to where he begins to awaken to the world of adults. His matter-of-fact announcement that he sold the baby is followed by an even more insensitive remark: "What did I do? I thought we'd have another."
Renier does a nice job of playing Bruno as a textbook case, so we watch him with more objectivity than we otherwise might. And though their relationship is pubescent at best, he also has a strong love-hate chemistry with co-star Déborah Francois, who plays his girlfriend, Sonia.
"L'enfant" is set and shot in Seraing, Belgium, on the River Meuse, a worn-out, industrial-looking area that underscores the pettiness of the crimes and of the lives that are being led. There are no breathtaking shots of scenery, and no bright colors—just a drab dreariness that pervades. And it's all pretty minimalist. At some point, for example, we see Bruno's mother, but get very that would enable us to form an impression of her and any causal relationship that might help us understand her son's behavior better.
The cover notes make it sound as if the plot centers on Bruno's heroic attempt to recover the couple's baby after Sonia faints at hearing the news and becomes so distraught that she needs medical attention. But that's misleading. The recovery of the baby isn't so much the story as it is Bruno's recovery of self. As he struggles in the aftermath of a broken deal that has his black market contacts leaning on him, Bruno sets out to begin paying their exorbitant "interest" by enlisting the aid of one of his boys, Steve (Jérémie Segard). It's their misadventure on the scooter that leads, ultimately, to Bruno's growth and self-discovery.
Though the palette is dingy, the filmmakers have done an interesting thing in choosing to film almost exclusively in closed-frame shots, in which objects appear around all of the edges so that there is no visual sense of open space or a "way out." In doing so, they reinforce the theme of confinement and restriction that Bruno experiences, and it's highly successful. They also used a hand-held camera for most of the movie in order to heighten the gritty sense of realism that the film has.
Video: Mastered in High Definition, "L'enfant" sports a 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio that fills out the screen of a 16x9 TV. There's a slight graininess that's noticeable because of the dreary colors, but nothing that detracts from the viewing experience. The black level also seems low, but again, that may well be deliberate.
Audio: The audio is French Dolby Digital 5.1 with English and French subtitles. The 5.1 is very balanced, especially with ambient sounds. Sometimes those rear-speaker effects stand out more than they do in real life to the average ear, but there's a nice distribution across all of the speakers. The bass may be a tad low for some tastes, but that's easily adjusted.
Extras: In the only extra, the Dardennes are shown on-camera doing an interview with an animated radio host. The questions are more interesting than usual, and the Dardennes' answers are rich and fluid. The idea, we're told, came from the image of a 15 or 16-year-old girl they say pushing a baby carriage with a sleeping baby inside. And she was pushing it roughly, as if she wanted to wake the child up or jostle it. That haunted them, and eventually led them to a story that became more about the girl's boyfriend than about the baby or the girl. The interview itself is above average, though since it's the only extra the overall score will reflect that.
Bottom Line: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have given us an absorbing film about the redemption of a petty thief and the events that lead to his self-recovery. But "L'enfant" stops short of being a masterpiece. The performances are good but not memorable, and the script, while intelligent and moving (pun intended), nonetheless doesn't veer off into new-enough territory. We've seen this fellow Bruno before, while his situation, apart from the baby, seems equally familiar. Same with the couple's relationship. The saving grace is that the Dardennes cover this familiar ground in an accomplished way.