"This is your man, go with him."
|Alan Clarke's instruction to his camera operator on The Firm
is a reason for that seemingly unconnected quote above.
Have patience and I'll get to it.
European cinema is your thing, then you will already
know the work of the Belgian Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre
and Luc.* Strike that, if compelling, bold and intelligent
drama is your thing, then you should already know the
work of the Dardenne brothers. If you don't, then you
are short-changing your viewing self. Their two previous
works, Rosetta (1999)
Son (Le Fils 2002) – both marvellous
movies in their own right – attracted widespread praise
and a handful of serious awards, especially at Cannes. Rosetta won
the Palme D'Or, The Son was nominated
but missed out (though bagged the Best Actor gong for
Olivier Gourmet), and they were back there again in 2005
with L'Enfant. And would you believe
it, they bagged the Palme D'Or for a second time in three
films. This was against some serious competition, too,
including Michael Haneke's Caché,
David Cronenberg's A
History of Violence, Gus Van Sant's Last
Days, Lars von Trier's Manderlay and...oh
man, you should see the list. Did the film deserve such
a prestigious gong in the face of such impressive competition?
Well I'll get to that later as well...
L'Enfant opens on 18-year-old Sonia, just out of hospital after giving birth and heading back to her apartment with her baby son in her arms. There's only one problem – someone else is now living at her place. Angry but not completely surprised, she demands that the ccupant return her phone charger and hunts out her 20-year-old boyfriend Bruno, who has sublet the property while she was in hospital. Bruno is a petty crook with the emphasis on petty. When Sonia tracks him down he is hassling motorists for small change, his main source of income being the money he makes fencing stolen goods for two local school kids. Bruno's attitude to his new son is one of indifference – it's there, that's fine, now hang on I have things to do. Not only was he absent for the birth, he didn't visit Sonia at all during her hospital stay. He is clearly fond of her and enjoys her company, but appears to have suffered something of an empathy bypass that prevents him from seeing the world as she does or understanding her feelings and emotional state.
lives frivolously on the financial edge – as soon as
he makes any money, it's fritted away on non-essentials
like hiring a convertible for a day or buying a leather
coat for Sonia so that they can dress alike. Bruno and
Sonia are symbols of a new type of poverty where financial desperation means only having
enough money for cigarettes and a mobile phone, an object more
important to Bruno than food, which he only becomes concerned
about when his mobile is taken from him. Bruno is always
looking for easy money ("Only fuckers work," he
tells Sonia) and has no moral issues about how he gets it. Thus when things get tough again,
a decision that would seem appalling to most seems almost
natural to him – acting on a suggestion made by the woman
he sells his stolen goods to, he takes his new son out
and by the time he returns, little Jimmy has
been transformed into a big wad of Euros. Sonia is aghast,
but Bruno shrugs it off. "We'll have another," he
dismissively tells her. She collapses on the spot. Suddenly
Bruno is not so detached, and after getting her to hospital
makes a call to cancel the deal on his kid. But it isn't
that simple. He's not dealing with nice people and this
cancellation has cost them, and they have every intention
of passing that on. And how is our boy going to find
the €5,000 they are demanding for the return of the boy?
On paper a seemingly impossible character to warm to, Jérémie Renier makes Bruno a compelling and disarmingly likeable figure, his sunny smile, cheery demeanour and upbeat attitude making it all too easy for us to engage with him. Repeatedly he makes irresponsible decisions, but such is the bond between us and him that although we want him to realize the error of his ways, we don't want him to come to harm in the process. Thus when he takes a beating for money he owes there is no sense of satisfaction, only pain at his suffering, and though we may groan when he graduates to snatch-and-grab robbery, we end up rooting for him in the pursuit that follows. And I'll bet there aren't many who sit through the emotional final sequence without a small lump in their throat.
Equally important to this process is the Dardennes' direction. That quote at the top of this review is one that came to symbolize the late Alan Clarke's singular approach to drama during his 'walking films' period, but could just as easily be applied to the work of the Dardenne brothers, whose use of handheld camera and decision to lock in to one character, often in unbroken close-up (the first half-hour of The Son was presented almost entirely in close-up on the lead character), connects us not just with the person but their experience as well. Thus when Bruno exchanges the baby for the money, the camera stays on him as he follows instructions to maintain the anonymity of the second party, who are represented only by the sound of footsteps and closing doors. When a second meeting is arranged for the child's return, this technique is used to crank up the tension, a deal that could easily turn nasty conducted in a deserted lock-up through a small opening at the top of the wall. In both cases we only see and hear what Bruno sees and hears, and whatever our feelings about his actions, this technique can't help but evoke a degree of situational empathy.
In some respects Bruno can be seen as symbolic of a particularly unfeeling form of twenty-first century capitalism. Opportunistic and self-centred, he regards everything, including people, as a commodity to be traded and cares little for the consequences his actions have on others. But Bruno is more than just a symbol of our times and for me felt as real as any screen character I've spent time with this year. I have no doubt his similarity to a close friend from the past (a habitual heroin user who was nonetheless such a genuinely affable guy, one whose upbeat personality made it difficult to deal directly with a problem that was slowly destroying him) that enabled me to connect with him so quickly, in spite of his attitude to life and those around him. I doubt I'm an isolated case here – there can be few among us who have not been close to someone whose habits, behaviour or even choice of partner has made us want to slap some sense into them.
most intriguing is the title itself. Initially
it would seem to represent the baby whose sale proves
the first catalyst for change in Bruno, and later could
also refer to Steve, Bruno's schoolboy accomplice whose misfortune
finally awakens him to the consequences of his actions
and the need to face up to them. But for my money the
child of the title is Bruno himself. An adult in body
only, his roadside and in-car frolicking with Sonia,
his gleeful jumping to place muddy footprints on a wall,
his teasing of Jimmy after a fart and his distracted
riverside water splashing are all activities
of a boy half his age, while his seeming inability to
understand or care for the consequences of his deeds
is not heartlessness, but typical behaviour for a young
boy a few years short of maturity. Part of the power
of the final scenes lies in him visibly taking his first
steps towards true adulthood, to begin thinking of others
in an unselfish way and finally express emotions he has
hitherto kept on ice. It is here that we watch Bruno take his first steps to becoming a man.
L'Enfant is a gripping, intelligent drama that never shouts its considerable qualities, creating scenes of real tension and prompting a genuine emotional response without the standard prop of a music score, and even in its more outrageous moments (there are some, I am sure, who will dismiss the very idea that someone could so coldly trade their own child) feels utterly true. The two leads are both unflashily excellent – the focus on Bruno should not in any way diminish Déborah François' compelling work as Sonia – and the Dardennes once again prove that when it comes to telling gripping, moving and humanist stories about real people and the difficult road to redemption, then they pretty much rule the roost. So did they deserve their second Palme D'Or for the film? Hell yes.
watching this film in the cinema it more than once
occurred to me that the Dardennes had taken the opposite
route to California film crews and only gone outside
with their camera when the sun went in and the sky was
overcast. This grey look to the light is perfectly in
keeping with the drabness of the locale, the mood of
the film and the unsensational approach to the story.
This does mean that any DVD transfer is unlikely to leap
from the screen, but within these restrictions this is
a very solid job, with a good level of detail, decent
black levels and contrast, and colours that are
as toned down as they were in the cinema. Grain is visible
throughout, but is not intrusive. The framing is approximately
1.66:1 (I say approximately because my grabs seem about
1.68:1) and the picture is anamorphically enhanced.
soundtrack is 5.1 surround – well I say surround, but
there is little evidence of rear speaker activity, and
with no music score and with sound used primarily to establish location,
the majority of the film is front and, well, biased towards
the centre rather than rooted there. Not that this matters
here – clarity is what's important, and on the scaore I have
no complaints whatsoever.
The only extra worth celebrating is An Interview with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (22:44), in which the brothers talk about the inspiration for the project and their approach to working with actors, crew and specific urban environments. This is interesting stuff, especially the almost casual observation that launched the project and how it developed into the film we see now.
A brief Biography and filmography for the brothers are included, as are trailers for four of their films: L'Enfant (1:16), Rosetta (0:58), Le Promesse (1:15) and Le Fils (1:27).
Once again the Dardenne Brothers create a quietly superb film from a simple situation and story by focussing on characters that are recognisably real and instantly accessible, and by connecting us directly to their experiences and, ultimately, their feelings. Celebrated critic Roger Ebert memorably said of their previous film, Le Fils [The Son] "The Son is complete and final. All a critic can bring to it is his admiration." It is looking increasingly as if this will prove to be a ready-made description for all of the Dardenne's films. Artificial Eye's DVD is not exactly awash with extras, but in other respects serves the film well, and thus comes recommended.
* It was in a fit of Star Trek-inspired doziness that I once wrongly credited them in print as Pierre and Jean-Luc. Sorry guys. Unless you're a fan of the Captain, of course.