Director : Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne
Screenplay : Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2005 (France) / 2006 (U.S.)
Stars : Jérémie Renier (Bruno), Déborah François (Sonia), Jérémie Segard (Steve), Fabrizio Rongione (Young Thug), Olivier Gourmet (Plainclothes Officer), Stéphane Bissot (Receiver), Mireille Bailly (Bruno’s Mother), Anne Gérard (Female Shopkeeper), Bernard Marbaix (Shopkeeper), Frédéric Bodson (Older Thug), Léon Michaux (Police Station Policeman), Samuel De Ryck (Thomas)
Before they directed their first feature-length fictional film, Falsch, in 1987, filmmaker-brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne spent nearly a decade shooting documentaries. Not surprisingly, the raw immediacy of the documentary tradition is writ large in their fictional works, as is the ghost of austere French auteur Robert Bresson. Like Bresson, the Dardennes’s style is simple and direct; it is unadorned with sentimentality and aesthetic flourishes (including those meant to look natural). There is never the sense that they are working hard to make their films seem “real.” They just do.
Six years after winning the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Rosetta (1999), the powerful tale of an angry young woman and her alcoholic mother, the Dardennes took home Cannes’s top prize again for L’Enfant (The Child), a disarmingly simple tale about a petty thief in a small, industrial Belgian town (in between these two films the Dardennes wrote and directed Le Fils, which won special mention and best actor at Cannes). The child of the title is ostensibly the newborn son of a young couple, Bruno (Jérémie Renier) and Sonia (Déborah François), but as the story unfolds, it becomes all too clear that the true childishness belongs to Bruno.
Bruno is an aimless young man who refuses any chance of employment, opting instead for a life of petty thievery. With his floppy blond hair and eager eyes, he is a man-child with a gift for consumption. He has no view beyond the end of his own nose, and any amount of money he gets he immediately spends, which keeps him in constant momentum, always looking for the next deal or opportunity regardless of its cost or effect on others. For example, in the film’s opening scene, Sonia comes home from the hospital after giving birth and finds that Bruno has sublet her room to someone else in the meantime.
Despite such despicable behaviors, Bruno is a strangely sympathetic creature. His arrested development makes his crassness not only understandable, but forgivable, and we side with him even though we aren’t given simple assurances about why he is the way he is (the Dardennes refuse to supply backstory on either Bruno or Sonia). Bruno’s worst sin seems to be aimlessness and immaturity, that is, until he makes the fateful decision to sell his newborn baby on the black market behind Sonia’s back. He rationalizes that the child will go to a good home and he will make a wad of cash on the side for him and Sonia (plus, he tells her casually, they can always have another one). This sets off a chain of events that gets Bruno in deep with both the police and the black marketers, not to mention Sonia, who finally realizes that a life with Bruno may be no life at all.
Working for the fifth time with cinematographer Alain Marcoen, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne use long takes and handheld cameras in L’Enfant, which, when combined with the intense performances by Jérémie Renier and Déborah François, give the film its effectively gritty verisimilitude. The Dardennes tend to favor stories that take place in working class settings, and the events L’Enfant happen primarily in the gray, forgotten industrial corners of Europe not traveled by tourists. The story itself isn’t tidy, but rather unfolds as life itself does--in spurts and stops. There are moments of calm, when nothing of narrative importance seems to be happening, but the Dardennes clearly have a plan and have unobtrusively imposed a sly sense of order on the story (for example, a playful romp in a grassy field between Bruno and Sonia at the beginning of the film is mirrored in much darker fashion later when they fight in their tiny apartment).
For all its bleakness, though, L’Enfant is a powerfully moving and emotionally compelling film. The Dardennes have a special kind of alchemy in which they take terrible situations and, without resorting to easy sentimentality or pat answers, use them to demonstrate the ineffable depths of humanity. Their stories are deeply existential in that they don’t give excuses for their characters or try to wrap them up in psychological or sociological explanations. They are who they are and do what they can to survive. Sometimes that involves bad choices, and Bruno’s arc in L’Enfant constantly drives him deeper and deeper until his life is collapsing around him and the only thing he has left to do is the right thing.
|Audio||French Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
|Supplements||Interview with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne|
|Distributor||Sony Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||August 15, 2006|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The general softness of the anamorphic widescreen transfer on this disc is most likely attributable to the film’s cinematography--this is how it is supposed to look. While the image is pleasingly filmlike, it lacks the sharp edges that many have come to expect from DVDs. The film’s cool, grayish palette is well depicted, and there is no artifacting from either dirt and wear or compression. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is subdued, with most of the sounds coming from the front soundstage. The surround channels are used minimally for ambient sounds and not much else.|
|The only supplement included on the disc is a half-hour video of a radio interview conducted with writer/directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne in France a few days before the film opened. It is an interesting interview that gives a good deal of insight into how the Dardennes work and from where they draw their ideas.|
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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