Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, L’Enfant is the second film by the Belgian writers/directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne to gain this accolade (following on from Rosetta in 1999).
The Dardenne brothers started making documentaries about 30 years ago and for the last 10 years they have used the same gritty realism in their feature films to great effect.
Like most of their works, L’Enfant is set in the Belgian industrial city of Seraing. The protagonists are 20-year-old Bruno (Jrmie Renier, who starred in the Dardennes’ The Promise) and his girlfriend Sonia (Dborah Franois), who is two years younger and has just given birth to their son Jimmy. They have been living off state benefits and the proceeds of Bruno’s petty thieving, and are so desperate for cash that they sublet their council flat for a short time while they sleep in a shelter – but as soon as they get any money they squander it.
The couple seem genuinely fond of each other though Bruno is even more immature than Sonia. He lives just in the present, without any sense of responsibility, so that the film’s title could refer to him as much as to Jimmy. We see him with a gang of kids stealing and selling stuff to a fence, and it’s a casual remark by the fence that gives Bruno the horrible idea of using his baby son to make some serious money, which inevitably leads to serious trouble.
Low-key documentary-style filming, with no music and long periods without dialogue (which when it comes feels – though probably isn’t – improvised) doesn’t sound very exciting, but the characters and situations seem so authentic this is actually a thoroughly compelling movie. Very direct and in your face, and deceptively well made, L’Enfant is ultimately more life-affirming than depressing because the unsentimental compassion of the film-makers shines through the harrowing events of the story.
The Dardennes make brilliant use of seedy locations in the city, as we see the couple with their pram trying to cross the dual carriageway with juggernauts thundering by, or Bruno sleeping one night in a flattened cardboard box in a hovel by the dreary canal. It’s a tale of urban dystopia that packs an emotional punch.
However, unlike, say, some of Ken Loach’s naturalistic films, L’Enfant doesn’t seem to have any particular political or moral message. The Dardennes are neither campaigning for a disenfranchised underclass, nor making ethical judgements about society. Bruno has the chance to get a job but he unashamedly admits he doesn’t want to work – he’s disaffected rather than disinterested. He would rather live on his wits on the streets.
The Dardennes are not so much trying to point the finger at social ills as portray the evolving relationship between two individuals who are certainly products of their environment but not necessarily representatives of a group. We follow Bruno through various painful experiences as he comes to appreciate the harm he has done to Sonia but this is no sentimental story of repentance and forgiveness – by the end Bruno is certainly chastened but you wonder whether he will soon revert to his previous selfish ways.
It sounds like a clich but the performances are so natural that you forget the actors are acting. Jrmie Renier shows that the amoral Bruno is not malicious but is shockingly unaware of the consequences of his own actions, while Dborah Franois gives Sonia real emotional depth, forced to grow up now she has a baby who depends on her, and with a partner who’s anything but dependable.