Cash on delivery
A region 2 DVD review of L'ENFANT / THE CHILD by Slarek
 
"This is your man, go with him."
Alan Clarke's instruction to his camera operator on The Firm

 

There is a reason for that seemingly unconnected quote above. Have patience and I'll get to it.

If 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) and The 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...

Bruno and Sonia in happier times

L'Enfant opens on 18-year-old Sonia, just out of hospital after giving birth and heading back to her apartment, her baby son in her arms. Only one problem – someone else is living there. 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 had something of an empathy bypass that prevents him from seeing the world as she does, or understanding her feelings and emotional state.

Bruno 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 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 dor 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, at least as a screen character. 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 audience 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.

The child holds his baby

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 other 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 for 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 at least is 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 and whose upbeat personality madfe 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 makes you want to slap some sense into them.

Perhaps most intriguing  is the title itself. Initially it would seem to represent the baby whose sale proves the first catalyst for change in Bruno, while 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.

Bruno and Steve

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.

sound and vision

When 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 tne picture is anamorphically enhanced.

The soundtrack is 5.1 surround – well I say surround, but there is little evidence of rear speaker activity, and with no music and 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 matters, and on the scaore I have no complaints whatsoever.

extra features

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).

summary

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, 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.

The Child
L'Enfant

Belgium / France 2005
100 mins
directors
Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Luc Dardenne
starring
Jérémie Renier
Déborah François
Jérémie Segard
Fabrizio Rongione
Olivier Gourmet 

DVD details
region 2
video
1.66:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
French
subtitles .
English
extras
Interview with the Dardenne brothers
Dardenne brothers biography
Trailers
distributor
Artificial Eye
release date
14 July 2006
review posted
26 July 2006