L’Enfant comes to us from France (merci) but it may as well be Danish; for starters, I don’t speak either language very well, and second of all the Bros. Dardenne assert a filmmaking approach that appears to be as doctrinaire as Thomas Vinterberg's. The film is shot on what appear to be real locations, with natural lighting and no extradiegetic sound, seemingly qualifying it to be Dogme No. 158. Though unlike, say, Lars von Trier's alluring yet annoying stylistic experiments as of late, the Bros. Dardenne want to engage you with their affecting character study of a contemporary French hooligan. It feels like some kind of neoneorealism.
Bruno (Jérémie Renier) is a petty thief and good-for-nothing sod, with a pretty girlfriend Sonia (Déborah François) who has just given birth to their son, Jimmy. Though Bruno could seem to care less that he’s got another tiny body to steal clothes for, his relationship with Sonia is playful and sweet, and you want to believe they’re very much in love.
Not in love enough to get a job, though, as Bruno boils down his philosophy in a nutshell: “J’ai pas envie de travailler pour des enculés.” (“Only fuckers work,” pardon his French, is the polite translation on the DVD.) He sees the world only in terms of commodified objects with black-market value, and yet it still comes as something of a surprise when he sells Jimmy for a few thousand euros. Did he really think Sonia would let him get away with that?
The Bros. Dardenne capture all the action with a wild handheld camera, using particularly long takes as they never intercut within scenes. The technique demands they use almost nothing but close-ups, which makes the images personal and emotionally involving without resorting to formal manipulation of the audience.
Narratively the film is slight – boy gets girl, boy sells baby, boy loses girl – but its simplicity is deceptive. It packs emotional intensity thanks to the leads’ masterful performances, who like the actors in Old Joy can pack a script's worth of emotional declaration into a long dialogueless stretch, and it's only enhanced by the gray, rainy streetscapes they inhabit. If you’re planning a trip to Belgium, where the film is shot, I would recommend you reconsider. (The joke being, of course, that no one would plan a trip to Belgium.)
One of the film’s most impressive performances is from Jérémie Segard, a mere garçon who plays one of Bruno’s schoolaged partners in crime. The pain that quivers through his body during the film’s climax is enough to make one want to call the authorities and report Luc and Jean-Pierre for child abuse. Puits fait.